"Betrayal" over Brexit must be urgently addressed to help stabilise violence in Northern Ireland
The government must be more proactive in recognising the dangers and managing the growing pressures in an already fragile Northern Ireland.
The violent protests in Northern Ireland over recent days are deeply concerning. It is especially troubling to see young people being exploited by paramilitary leaders in the rioting, and sobering to recognise that so far 41 police officers have been injured.
While tensions are clearly rising within Northern Ireland, the violence to date has been largely confined to a few pockets, with many of these areas under the influence of an organised crime gang that has been successfully challenged by the police over recent weeks. Nevertheless, there can be no space for complacency.
There is never any excuse or rationalisation for violence. It needs to be condemned from all sides, and support for policing and the rule of law unambiguous from all political parties.
The reasons for the current violence are complex and multi-faceted.
This weekend is the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland sadly remains a deeply divided society, with the process of reconciliation incomplete.
Northern Ireland was already in a fragile state. If care is not taken, the current devolved arrangements could collapse
Brexit has badly fractured Northern Ireland. This region can only work through sharing and interdependence, but Brexit entail new divisions and boundaries which bring friction and can undermine someone sense of identity.
The Protocol is the product of the choices made around Brexit. With the UK leaving the Customs Union and Single Market, a border had to be created somewhere. Doing so on the island of Ireland was never a serious option, and that sadly left the Irish Sea interface. The greater the divergence by the UK from the EU then the more severe the impact that Protocol would be.
Even in this context, there was nothing inevitable about the Protocol becoming framed in constitutional terms as opposed to just a cumbersome economic arrangement. However, that is the course that political unionism has chosen.
Unrealistic demands for the scrapping of the Protocol without a plausible alternative have raised the stakes. The deep irony is of course that the DUP alongside other unionist parties rejected all attempts at a softer Brexit and insisted on pursuing a hard Brexit with hubristic denial of the inevitably of an Irish Sea interface. Furthermore, Boris Johnson made undeliverable promises that Brexit could be delivered without any Irish Sea border at all, thereby further compounding a sense of betrayal.
The more immediate factor behind the protests lies in the fallout from the funeral of senior IRA figure Bobby Storey in June 2020. This was attended by most of the Sinn Fein leadership in defiance of the public health regulation around funerals.
That Sinn Fein rationalised this as solidarity with a grieving family at a time when all other families were making enormous sacrifices generated immense hurt as did the subsequent failure to offer an unqualified and unambiguous apology.
Despite a police investigation, the prosecution service concluded that charges could not be sustained against the Sinn Fein leadership for breaching the Covid rules.
Rather than focus on Sinn Fein’s primary responsibility, the DUP and other unionists turned their ire on the Chief Constable in relation to how the Police Service of Northern Ireland and unfairly demanded his resignation. This sets up yet another undeliverable demand.
Northern Ireland was already in a fragile state, and more and more layers of tension are being added. If care is not taken, the current devolved arrangements could collapse.
The government needs to be much more proactive in both recognising the dangers and trying to manage the growing pressures.
Steps can be taken to address or even remove many of the checks related to the Protocol through concluding a veterinary agreement with the EU.
More immediately, in conjunction with the Irish government, the Secretary of State needs to convene a meeting of the main parties to air and address current grievances and to try to stabilise what could easily be a further deteriorating situation.
Stephen Farry is the Alliance MP for North Down and deputy leader of the Alliance Party.
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