The DUP’s failure to take responsibility is fanning the flames of violence in Northern Ireland
No longer the kingmakers at Westminster and having been roundly ditched by Boris Johnson, the DUP have resorted to their classic position of ‘No’ without offering any viable alternatives, and of deflecting blame wherever it might stick.
Amidst the hope and optimism none of us were so naïve to believe that the Good Friday Agreement would transform Northern Ireland overnight. Yet, twenty-three years on from Good Friday 1998, scenes of rioters attacking police officers, a bus hijacked and set alight, and clashes at peace walls should be consigned to history. A culture of using violence to express discontent has unfortunately been embedded in the political fabric.
The rioting was catalysed by the Public Prosecution Service’s announcement that no prosecutions for breach of Covid-19 regulations at the funeral last June of prominent Republican, Bobby Storey, attended by dozens of Sinn Fein politicians including the deputy First Minister and Finance Minister.
The hurt and anger Sinn Fein caused was by no means confined to one section of the community, but, against the backdrop of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol it was seized upon by Unionist political leaders as apparent evidence of an Establishment’s contempt for Unionism itself.
The DUP have rightly condemned the violence and appealed for calm, but while doing so, they must recognise the contribution Unionist political leaders have made to the tension and resentment simmering beneath the surface. The DUP’s obstinance, calls for ‘guerrilla warfare’ and proposals to “free” Northern Ireland from the Protocol have fanned flames and been seized upon by paramilitaries and their proxies to orchestrate violence.
‘Ulster says no’ didn’t cut it before and it doesn’t cut it now
When some of the children involved in the rioting aren’t even old enough to have read about the Troubles in their schoolbooks, it is clear that the cause is not simply custom declarations or the PPS threshold for prosecution. This disorder is not spontaneous or widespread: instead it is egged on by the paramilitaries who still wield control in working-class communities.
These are the communities now picking up the pieces of days of violence and chaos, bearing the brunt of the DUP’s myopic tactics and its scramble to deflect blame for its own failings. The Protocol was the logical outcome of the DUP’s support for Brexit: they could have hard Brexit or they could stay largely aligned with Britain, but they could not have both.
No longer the kingmakers at Westminster and having been roundly ditched by Boris Johnson, the DUP have resorted to their classic position of ‘No’ without offering any viable alternatives, and of deflecting blame wherever it might stick; to the EU, Remainers, Dublin, Nationalists.
The same short-sightedness characterised their support for welfare reform measures at Westminster, seemingly oblivious or indifferent to the impact the Bedroom Tax and social security cuts would have on families in the working-class Unionist neighbourhoods they rely on for votes.
John Hume was right when he said that you can’t eat a flag. Paramilitaries who exploit and terrorise communities feed off deprivation, poor educational outcomes, and long waiting lists for social housing. Young people who see no future for themselves are told to direct their anger anywhere but the lack of leadership and delivery by political Unionism.
Living standards are critical, but they alone cannot address the conditions that allow paramilitaries to choregraph public disorder and violence.
The narrative of defeat and of a zero-sum game being peddled by political unionism may have some electoral dividends but it does not serve the people whose doors they knock in those elections. Through the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland agreed to disagree through democratic politics, not violence.
‘Ulster says no’ didn’t cut it before and it doesn’t cut it now. It may be too much to expect an acknowledgment from the DUP that their support for Brexit resulted in the Protocol that they are now railing against but it does not relieve them from the responsibility to engage in finding solutions.
Politicians’ language has an impact: it is why the SDLP have been calling for calm. Those calls may not be necessary if others remember that combative language also has an impact.
Claire Hanna is the Social Democratic & Labour Party MP for Belfast South.