Brexit rows boost divides in Northern Ireland

Submitted by martin on 13 April, 2021 - 5:02 Author: By Micheál MacEoin
Belfast bus drivers

Above: Belfast bus drivers' protest against sectarian violence

Northern Ireland has been rocked by over a week of rioting, predominantly in loyalist working-class areas in several towns and cities including Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Newtownabbey.

Beginning on 29 March, the near-nightly unrest in working-class Protestant areas threatened on 8 April to spill over into sectarian violence between loyalist and nationalist youths at the Lanark Way interface in west Belfast. More recently, on the 11th, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) has ordered the removal of Catholic families from a housing estate in Carrickfergus.

The recent violence has been the most widespread in around a decade, with almost 100 police officers injured and water cannons deployed for the first time in six years. Children as young as 12 or 13 have thrown a combination of bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs at police lines, and cars and buses have been burned out and placed across roads.

A bus on the Shankill Road was hijacked and petrol bombed on Wednesday 7 April, its driver left badly shaken. The following day, Belfast bus workers brought the city centre to a standstill and vowed to walk off the job unless they were given assurances over their safety.

The roots of the unrest can be found in a toxic combination of factors. A huge share of blame lies with Unionist political leaders, who have stirred up tensions in recent months around the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement.

The DUP vigorously supported Brexit but was left reeling when the British Government agreed to the Protocol, placing an effective border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP initially tried to downplay the impact of the Protocol, with Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots even conceding privately to the agri-food sector that it had "potential advantages".

Then, a shock opinion poll in February showed Sinn Fein to the most popular party at 24% support, with the DUP languishing on a twenty-year low of 19%, just in front of the centrist Alliance Party. The DUP’s hardline unionist competitions, Traditional Unionist Voice, were at a record high of 10%.

Since the poll, the DUP have been crying "betrayal", seeking to rally their base against the Protocol, with potentially deadly consequences.

To distract attention, the DUP recently seized on the decision of the Public Prosecution Service on 30 March to prosecute no-one for breaches of Covid-19 restrictions at last year’s funeral of senior IRA figure Bobby Storey - even calling on the chief constable to resign.

The DUP’s concern for covid-distancing did not extend, however, to the large crowds of Rangers fans who took to the streets of Belfast to celebrate the team’s victory in the Scottish Premiership only weeks earlier.

Added to this, the South East Antrim "brigade" of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), has happily used the unrest in its strongholds of Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus to get back at the police. This comes after a recent crackdown on the paramilitary group’s drugs operation by the police and the National Crime Agency.

Underlying all of this, however, are the persistently high and growing rates of deprivation in working-class communities across Northern Ireland.

While DUP politicians and loyalist paramilitaries have inspired, and sought to capitalise on the unrest, at the same time it reflects a genuine and profound sense of alienation in working-class communities.

Despite the unstable "peace" of the past two decades, many working-class people in Northern Ireland are faced with poor educational and employment opportunities, have suffered cuts to services and youth centres, and are possessed of a profound lack of hope for the future.

These conditions of misery reflect the utter failure of the North’s sectarian parties, and of its political system in general.

The future requires a break with sectarian politics, and working-class unity on the basis of a democratic resolution of the national question.

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