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Security Brief: Current Struggles of Northern Ireland Seated in Historic Contempt

Week of April 19, 2021


Mary Sue Bickel, Marco Magrin, Darren Nichols; Historical Analysis

Current Struggles of Northern Ireland Seated in Historic Contempt


Belfast’s Peace Wall[1]


Date: March 29, 2021

Location: Northern Ireland

Parties involved: Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland

The event: Violence has erupted in Northern Ireland as Brexit regulations take hold and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is questioned. Spanning longer than a week, the police were being attacked, and the historic struggle over the Peace Wall turned less peaceful as bricks and more were thrown over the wall.

The implications:

  • Northern Ireland has a history steeped in conflict and violence, particularly along its border with the Republic of Ireland. Recent violence suggests this conflict may be on the rise, as grudges and judgment still maintain a place in the beliefs of the Northern Irish people. Along with the conflict at the Northern Ireland and Ireland border, Northern Ireland maintains division in its land as the Peace Wall in Belfast still stands, segregating Protestants and Catholics. The recent violence has included throwing bricks and other dangerous items over the Peace Wall, resulting in clashes, and buses and cars being set on fire. Spanning over a week, Belfast’s violence stems from the anger of the United Kingdom (UK) isolating the Protestant unionists, as a result of the new trade rules that Brexit has initiated.[2] This act of force stands as their defiance against being pushed into the Republic of Ireland and shows their willingness to enact violence to ensure this, similar to the violence that unfolded in Northern Ireland for decades killing over 3,000 people. This violence stopped for a short time likely due to the mourning period attributed to Prince Philip’s death but erupted again soon after. The lack of action during this mourning period shows the people of Northern Ireland’s continued loyalty to stay a part of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland under the British government.

  • This eruption of violence comes from the deep-rooted cultural violence and biases that stem from three decades of violence, referred to as “The Troubles.” Many people display their allegiance and beliefs, including through paramilitary murals and British flags displayed in Cluan Place.[3] The Peace Walls act as a historic reminder and constant separation of these two groups. Although it acts as a security buffer, intended to maintain the separation and continue this political and cultural sense of rivalry, tearing down this wall would likely not be met with the sense of peace and neutrality that would be expected. It would likely continue the rivalry and possibly escalate it by taking away the physical and mental barrier that lays there and acts to uphold the Good Friday Agreement. Signed on Good Friday twenty-three years ago, this violence in Belfast ensues over its anniversary and shows that the intent of this Agreement has not been fully accepted and that cultural biases still maintain a stronghold over the people of these groups. This unrest that includes attacks against the police progressed into bombings and rioting.[4] Brexit created the circumstances for a boiling point to be reached because it allowed the opportunity for disagreements to grow, political standings to be questioned, and the standing of various Irish parties in the British government to have their prioritized interests debated, resulting in increased anger and tensions that erupted into violence.

Date: April 21, 2021

Location: Londonderry; Belfast, Northern Ireland

Parties involved: Local Police, Rioters, New IRA party, United Kingdom, Northern Ireland

The event: Riots have been occurring nightly on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry, the two largest cities in Northern Ireland. Rioters have attacked police with gasoline bombs and rocks. The rioting has occurred in the mostly Catholic enclaves of the cities.

The implications:

  • The rioters and many Unionists are upset over the outcome of Brexit negotiations. They avoided a hard border with Ireland by keeping European Union (EU) rules for goods traversing that border, but the Irish Sea has become a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

  • The Unionists and Loyalists believe that the UK Brexit deal favored the Irish Nationalists. The hard sea border has caused shortages of goods in Northern Ireland, which has been compounded by the pandemic. In March, the Loyalist Communities Council withdrew from the Good Friday agreement.

  • The UK needs to create trading efficiency in the Irish Sea hard border to keep goods flowing between the two areas of the UK. The government will also need to pay more attention to the needs of the Unionists and Loyalists to curb violence. Problems have occurred from trading directly with the EU to fishing quotas for UK fishermen. It will take time to fix the various issues of Brexit and rectify the problems in Northern Ireland.

  • Tense negotiations between the UK and their European counterparts in the arena of future trade between the UK and the European Union leave a series of profound political questions which have been left unanswered by the current state of affairs. This has caused large-scale polarization, in particular within the context of the future relationship with Ireland, as well as general issues of territorial sovereignty, national identity, and most importantly, immigration.[5] The magnitude of the decision to leave the EU impacts immigration laws, economic and trade policy, and foreign relations with the countries of the European Union, which includes the Republic of Ireland. With the close result of 48-52 (percent) for Brexit in the referendum of 2016, this creates an unstable political environment. With so much at stake, compounded by the fundamental disagreement between Loyalists and Unionists specifically and Remainers and Brexiteers more generally on the future of the island, the Brexit dilemma creates the pre-conditions for increased instability and even violence.

  • With immigration being a tenet of the Brexit debate, the issue of a hard or soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or even a border with the contiguous United Kingdom, creates a dilemma not only regarding the Irish struggles, but also the question of immigration from the rest of the European Union and elsewhere. Prior to Brexit, the UK was not a party to the Schengen Agreement - which allows for the free movement of people within EU countries without border checks. However, being a party to the EU, the open border with Ireland (also an EU nation and a member of Schengen) rendered the Good Friday Agreement more tenable. Now, with the UK having left the EU, the Conservative government led by Boris Johnson - who ran on a heavily pro-Brexit platform - faces a dilemma: Open the UK borders with Northern Ireland (thereby placing the UK under the Schengen Agreement through Ireland) or keep the border checks, which could fuel continued and more widespread violence between Republicans and Unionists as had been between the 1960s until the 1990s before the Good Friday Agreement.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) Historical Analysis Team looks upon significant events to help predict the safety and future of peoples and nations. With the help of the Europe team (EUCOM), we will remain vigilant in its effort to detect, deter, and defeat threats in the region. CTG will continue to monitor the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland, stay up to date on Brexit regulation changes, and keep track of instability in the region. In the case of an immediate threat, an alert will be created. CTG will keep its clients up to date on threats that could potentially affect their interests. Any information on a credible threat can be turned in to law enforcement. If there are any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to contact us.

[1] "Belfast’s Peace Wall" by Mary Sue Bickel

[2] Fresh Unrest In Northern Ireland Sparks Comparisons To 'The Troubles', NPR, April 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/08/985336036/fresh-unrest-in-northern-ireland-sparks-comparisons-to-the-troubles

[3] Northern Ireland still divided by peace walls 20 years after conflict, PRI, January 2020, https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-01-14/northern-ireland-still-divided-peace-walls-20-years-after-conflict

[4] Violence in Northern Ireland sparks fears of a return to The Troubles, NBC, April 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/violence-northern-ireland-sparks-fears-return-troubles-n1264763

[5] Violence in Northern Ireland sparks fears of a return to The Troubles, NBC, April 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/violence-northern-ireland-sparks-fears-return-troubles-n1264763

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