Published: 9 April 2021
I love Northern Ireland and most of its people, and find it heartbreaking to see the province in the news today not in commemoration of its centenary year but once again because of vicious communal violence.
The law-abiding majority feel betrayed, and a new generation of young people is being encouraged by criminals to run amok, setting fire to buses and cars, throwing petrol bombs across the peace walls at neighbours with whom they disagree politically, and injuring anyone in uniform who is trying to stop them from wrecking the place.
Until the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement this kind of violence was so normal that it was often called recreational rioting. But, although it may have become less frequent, it has never gone away.
This time, the riots are led by loyalists – and while the instigators have almost no political support, many Unionists share their grievances. Where dissident republican rage is driven by a desire to tear down British rule, loyalist anger comes from a belief that the British state is an appeaser of republicanism and abandoning them to the enemy.
The Unionist politicians who wanted Northern Ireland to work after the Good Friday Agreement agreed to share power with Sinn Fein – many of whose political leaders are ex-convicts, all of whom eulogise IRA terrorism, and none of whom apologise for past atrocities. But they now feel the country is being run from the shadows by IRA veterans whose aim is to destabilise the province.
Two years ago, as she covered dissident republican violence in Derry, for example, the young journalist Lyra McKee was murdered by a bullet intended for police.
The immediate trigger for this week’s violence is the failure of the justice system to deal with the arrogant flouting by the Sinn Fein leadership of the Covid rules everyone else is expected to obey.
Last June, Sinn Fein leaders, including Michelle O’Neill, the Deputy First Minister, joined 2,000 others to attend the funeral of the intimidating ex-convict, prison-escapee and IRA ‘Director of Intelligence’ Bobby Storey. They even held a public meeting along the way addressed by Gerry Adams.
At the time, the limit for the number allowed to attend funerals was 30 people – which meant the republican party was spectacularly disregarding the restrictions they themselves set for the rest of society.
Yet, last week, after nearly a year of deliberation, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided not to recommend any prosecutions of the rulebreakers. And it was this decision that maddened the loyalist rioters.
But while the PPS announcement may have been the trigger, the main driver of this anger is the fallout from Brexit.
During Brexit negotiations, the EU, encouraged by the Irish government, cynically set out to weaponise Northern Ireland to scupper a deal or at the very least heavily punish the British.
There was a perfectly feasible way through smart technology and a Trusted Trader scheme to have a virtually invisible border on the Irish/EU side.
But Theresa May and her negotiating team caved in to the ludicrously exaggerated warnings about how a land border would lead to a resumption of violence and the death of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
By the time Boris Johnson took over in December 2019, the pass had been sold. And, to get a Brexit deal that worked, he had to agree to an arrangement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol which impedes trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Out of sheer spite, the EU has chosen to interpret the rules as inflexibly as possible and cause maximum disruption. And, to make it even worse, Sinn Fein have been crowing mendaciously about how this leads inexorably to a United Ireland.
Brexit negotiator Lord Frost is working to ameliorate the damage but Unionists have a genuine fear that Northern Ireland is being cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom by an internal border because, once more, the Government has caved in to threats of republican violence.
Though the scenes of violence this week are sickening and no one could condone them, it is hardly surprising that some angry loyalists decided to follow suit.
Unionists don’t much trust British governments and constantly fear being sold out.
Urgently sorting out the scandal of the protocol is the least Lord Frost and the Prime Minister can do to give the law-abiding and loyal Northern Irish people the centenary present they deserve.