Blog: Northern Ireland ‘playing with matches’ amid Brexit trade deal tensions – POLITICO Europe

BELFAST – The past week’s street skirmishes between loyalist militants and riot police in Northern Ireland may have been triggered by fallout from an IRA funeral. But the battle lines had already been drawn because of loyalist enmity against the post-Brexit trade deal.

Analysts and rioters agree that rising tensions over Northern Ireland’s “sea border” with Britain needed only a spark to unleash loyalists, the local term used for unionist hardliners willing to use violence to get their way.

“The loyalist community is genuinely and justifiably angry towards the Northern Ireland protocol,” said Moore Holmes, a loyalist organizer speaking beside the scene of rioting on Belfast’s Sandy Row district, where the burned remains of hijacked cars blacken the road.

He called for protesters to maintain “nonviolent resistance” – an unlikely outcome given that riots often follow illegal marches by loyalist “kick the pope” bands up to police lines.

Jonathan Powell, who was the British government’s chief negotiator in the talks that produced the Good Friday accord of 1998, said the consequences of Brexit were rattling the delicate balance of interests negotiated 23 years ago.

The Good Friday pact delivered “wins” for both sides of the divide: Irish nationalists seeking unity with the Republic of Ireland and Protestant unionists seeking to maintain political union with Britain. Peaceful pursuit of those competing aims was made easier by joint U.K. and Irish membership in the EU and its customs union.

But Powell says Britain’s choice of a “hard” Brexit, followed by EU and Irish government insistence on a trade protocol that keeps Northern Ireland subject to EU market rules, has ripped those divisions open again.

A post-Brexit regime that requires Northern Ireland to enforce EU rules on British goods arriving at its ports underscores loyalists’ sense that the nationalist side is gaining power and making gains at their expense.

“Loyalists have got left behind after the peace process. We never managed to bind them in,” Powell told BBC Belfast radio Wednesday.

“People are playing with matches. It’s really unwise, given the turbulence caused by Brexit,” he said, describing how working-class Protestants are poorly represented by elected unionist politicians – who often stir loyalist passions to destructive effect.

Pressure on police

The trigger for the past week’s rioting was a March 30 decision by public prosecutors not to charge any members of the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party over their pandemic-defying organization of an elaborate Irish Republican Army funeral attended by thousands.

The Democratic Unionists – who are supposed to govern Northern Ireland in tandem with Sinn Féin under terms of the Good Friday compromise – have spent months warning that loyalist violence was inevitable unless the post-Brexit protocol was removed and unrestricted trade with Britain allowed to resume.

They responded to Sinn Féin’s escape from prosecution by calling for the Northern Ireland chief constable to resign and accusing police commanders of permitting Sinn Féin to flout COVID-19 restrictions. Car hijackings and attacks on police in Protestant areas began the following night.

Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster doubled down on her resignation demands Wednesday and insisted she had no need to meet Chief Constable Simon Byrne to defuse tensions. She rejected accusations that her position had empowered loyalist attacks on rank-and-file officers.

“I have told him on many occasions that the differential treatment of Sinn Féin has to stop,” Foster said.

Foster simultaneously defended her recent decision to meet the Loyalist Communities Council, a legal umbrella group for outlawed loyalist gangs that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Catholic civilians, before paramilitary cease-fires took root in the mid-1990s.

She said her aim was to advocate nonviolent opposition to the protocol, even though those loyalist groups withdrew their support for the Good Friday deal soon after their meeting.

Naomi Long, Northern Ireland’s justice minister and leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, said Democratic Unionist rhetoric was fueling loyalist violence. “It’s in their interest to keep the pot boiling at all times,” Long said, arguing that Democratic Unionist claims of a pro-Sinn Féin bias in police had “made police the lightning rod for that anger.”

Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, said officers could not placate both sides of the community at the same time.

“If it’s not nationalists saying we’re too soft on loyalists, it’s the other way round. Police are always caught in the middle,” said Lindsay. He said the past week’s loyalist violence reflects a culmination of grievances “that have come together to create the perfect storm for discontent.”

But Powell – who helped establish the Loyalist Communities Council as a way for those outlawed groups to be heard politically – said Northern Ireland would likely be at peace today if Brexit hadn’t undercut unionists’ connections within the United Kingdom.

“We should not forget that these problems didn’t exist until Brexit kicked it off,” he said. “As soon as we went down the path of Brexit, someone was going to get hurt.”

This insight is from POLITICO’s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial email [email protected].

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