COVID-19 Response, Brexit Spark Violence in Northern Ireland

Christina Murphy
International Writer

A bus burns after it was hijacked in Belfast, Northern Ireland on April 7, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Jason Cairnduff/Reuters)

Once again, simmering tensions have boiled over in Belfast, Northern Ireland, this time in response to COVID-19 and Brexit. The country has enjoyed a somewhat delicate peace following the Good Friday agreement of 1998. However, it seems that COVID-19 and Brexit is set to resurrect previous political divisions, between the Unionists and Nationalists. The primarily Protestant Unionists are anxious to retain strong ties with Britain, while the largely Roman Catholic Nationalists desires to be united with the Republic of Ireland.

COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings became political when the police permitted the funeral of Bobby Storey, reportedly the head of the intelligence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A large crowd of about 2,000 people attended, mostly members of the Sinn Fein party. Sinn Fein served as the political sector of the IRA and continues to represent Catholics and Nationalists. Despite breaking regulations, the police decided not to prosecute those who attended the funeral.

Nearly 2000 people attend the funeral for IRA member Bobby Storey on June 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Bonzo/Alamy Live News)

Unionist frustration over this decision led to protests and Arlene Foster (Northern Ireland’s first minister) insisting that the chief of police, Simon Byrne, step down. Many Unionists feel that the police were showing partiality towards Sinn Fein in not prosecuting the funeral-goers. Johnathan Caine, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, stated that it, “played into the feeling among some Unionists that it is one rule for Sinn Fein and another for the rest of us”. According to the New York Times, some Unionists feel that the government has favored Nationalists since the passing of the Good Friday Agreement. This perceived shift of alliance has put more strain not only on the relationship between the police and Unionists, but also the Unionist and Nationalist parties.

Great Britain’s exit from the EU on January 1 (known as Brexit) has also sparked recent violence. Th passing of Brexit means that Northern Ireland will no longer have the same trade rules as Ireland. This further separates Northern Ireland from both the EU and the rest of Ireland. Many feel that Brexit has further divided the two dominant groups within the Northern Irish population – those who identify themselves as Irish and strive for a unified Ireland, and those who identify themselves as British members of the United Kingdom.

Rioting lights up the night of Belfast, Northern Ireland on April 7, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has allowed Northern Ireland to be “straddling the United Kingdom and the European Union trade systems”. Nevertheless, there will still be border checks on imports from Britain to Northern Ireland. This is a point of contention for Unionists, who feel that they are not being treated as an equal member of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, some British companies stopped sending their merchandise to Northern Ireland, so various supermarkets could not provide customers with their usual supply. Checks on goods have been ceased temporarily in response to threats against customs employees. Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast, summarizes Unionist feelings towards Brexit. She states, “[Unionists] feel betrayed by the British government and feel that Northern Ireland’s place in the union is very much under pressure as a result, so that sense of insecurity definitely raises the stakes.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly has united to demand an end to the violence. They have stressed that they will work together to support law and order despite their political differences.


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