Northern Ireland needs leadership. Without it, the violence could get worse
Before scenes of rioting in Belfast started to hit the national news, messages pinged across social media. On Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter calls went out for people to take to the streets. One message said protesters needed to “shut down Northern Ireland” and to “stand up and be counted”.
While it was mainly teenagers who rioted in Belfast, that doesn’t mean the situation wasn’t serious. Eight police officers were injured in the clashes. Businesses were damaged. On 4 April there was further violence in Newtownabbey. Cars were hijacked and burned on the road. The scenes were repeated on Monday night. Local communities have to pick up the pieces.
The Northern Ireland protocol and the police were cited as reasons to protest. People invoked the Ulster Workers’ Council strike in the 1970s, large-scale protests that brought down the first power-sharing government in Stormont. But this issue runs far deeper than the protocol and policing. The violence in Belfast is about a lack of unionist leadership. On a broader scale, it’s about the collective failure of politicians in Northern Ireland to tackle paramilitaries and the conditions that allow them to thrive.
The violence, even though it is on a small scale, speaks to the uneasy position of unionism and loyalism in Northern Ireland. Unionists and loyalists feel betrayed, angry and let down. Some feel unrepresented by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists. There is a disconnect between members of the legislative assembly and the people on the ground. The majority do not support violence. However, the situation is delicate, and it could get worse if solutions aren’t provided.
Though it was originally backed by the DUP, Brexit has been a disaster for unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland. They were outmanoeuvred and outflanked, and the result is the despised protocol. They now have few allies internationally, in Westminster or within the assembly.
Some of the unionist political parties are backing legal action to take down the protocol, but the outcome is uncertain. There’s no guarantee that it will be removed even if the case succeeds. If it fails, what next? Only a fool would place any kind of trust in Boris Johnson. Unionists could try to ditch the protocol in the assembly in 2024 by using the consent mechanism, but, with its vote declining, that looks unlikely.
Unionist politicians need to be honest about the protocol. They need to be realistic and offer proper solutions, not slogans and empty rhetoric. If there isn’t a reality check soon, bad faith actors will use people’s anger for their own dangerous purposes.
Along with the protocol, anger towards the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been cited by some as a reason for protesting and rioting. There was widespread anger when the deputy first minister and other members of Sinn Féin attended the funeral of Bobby Storey, a prominent Republican, last year. The funeral was seen to be in breach of the Covid regulations. The police were criticised for not issuing fines and stopping the event from going ahead. The Public Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute members of Sinn Féin caused outrage.
Many in Britain see the controversy around the deputy first minister’s actions as a unionist issue, but it isn’t. People from every community in Northern Ireland took issue with the PSNI’s approach and were angry with Sinn Féin. Very few think the riots are an appropriate response.
Since the Storey funeral, some unionist politicians have implied that the PSNI are biased towards Sinn Féin and that the party is receiving “special treatment”. That language is unhelpful. There is a perception in some quarters that Sinn Féin rules the roost, and the police are doing their bidding. The truth is that unionists still have power as well as dissatisfaction, but anger with the police is not confined to one community.
Young people throwing rocks at the police didn’t orchestrate the violence in Belfast and Newtownabbey. The people who did sat on the sidelines, comfortable and well protected, while young people did their dirty work for them. Some believe paramilitary groups are orchestrating the violence in response to being investigated by the PSNI for drugs and racketeering. They are using the protocol and the Storey funeral as cover for their actions.
Last year, the Independent Reporting Commission (IRC) recommended a twin-track approach to tackling paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. One track is about policing and criminal justice. The other is tackling the underlying socio-economic issues that prevail in communities where paramilitaries operate. Northern Ireland has significant problems with mental health, poverty and social deprivation. Half of Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas are found in Belfast, and 120,000 children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty. There are more than 40,000 people on the waiting list for social housing. That list increased by 10% within the last year. Those statistics should shame politicians, and cause concern across the political spectrum. The IRC stated: “Many of the communities where the paramilitaries exert coercive control have long suffered from deprivation and disadvantage, much of which was exacerbated by the Troubles.”
These paramilitaries should never have existed in Northern Ireland and they should not exist in the wake of the Good Friday agreement. They should not exert so much influence over our politics and hold our politicians in a vice grip. Tackling them requires political leadership and bold policy decisions to transform communities in Northern Ireland.
It is the 23rd anniversary of the agreement on 10 April. This is Northern Ireland’s centennial year. The violence in Belfast and Derry shows that Northern Ireland’s political class still have a lot of work to do. But, as it stands, nobody within political unionism appears to have a clear, well-thought-out strategy for the road ahead.
Sarah Creighton is a lawyer, writer and political commentator from Northern Ireland