Matthew Collins reflects on the recent outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

Last Friday night in Belfast, Loyalist youths ignored pleas to pause a near week’s rioting to show respect for the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh.

But it wasn’t just youths involved. In Tigers Bay, North Belfast, an aged man with a walking stick fumbled to throw a stone as police Land Rovers drove slowly past. His action drew both cheers of applause and derision from those gathered.

Rioting in Belfast has been in the news for over a week. The four nights of rioting in Northern Ireland’s second city of Derry/Londonderry was not worthy of apparent mention. Let no news update miss a flaming bottle aimed at riot shields and expert analysis from the comfort of London.

Why were Unionists and Loyalists rioting? Why was the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) last Thursday night firing water cannon for the first time in six years at Nationalist youths in the Springfield Road area of West Belfast, when only the night before police Land Rovers were driving through flames to smash shut the large ‘peace’ gate torn open by Loyalist rioters to get to them?

English ambivalence

Boris Johnson meets with First Minister, Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill. ©Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street

The English have never been more ambivalent and disinterested in Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish. And not since Winston Churchill has the United Kingdom had a more “English” Prime Minister. Boris Johnson’s drunken play and kiss on the cheek with the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Arlene Foster in 2018 when he went on a Brexit charm offensive was an almost haunting portrayal of future Tory party policy. For that kiss, and all that followed for Arlene and the Unionists in Northern Ireland, it may as well have been the kiss of death.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, which has created different trading rules in the province compared to Great Britain, is felt by many to break the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – the 23-year-old document credited with bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland. The document enshrined that the British (Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists, or PUL) were allowed to be British and the Irish (Catholics, Nationalists and Republicans, or CNR) were allowed to feel more Irish, and almost as if they were living in Ireland. And if they so chose, either could switch and live as the other. No bother.

The English have never been more ambivalent and disinterested in Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish. 

The key bit of the GFA was that this being Irish/being British thing would last until the people decided they no longer wanted to move in this direction, and by plebiscite and not Armalite, the British could feel British in a United Ireland. And so ostensibly, but not deliberately, began a race by two sides to either outbreed each other or convince the other of the rights of their beliefs.

With greater devolution instead of an armed revolution, Northern Ireland has felt tangibly safer and more friendly since the GFA was signed. The majority of guns and bullets have been handed over to the Americans and Canadians for destruction.

Murder is substantially less common even if murderers and their murder gangs are still mutely celebrated or at least solemnly observed. 

But, for some, it’s been 23 years of treading water. The Republicans gave up their dream of an armed revolution and in 1998 sent their political wing Sinn Fein into Stormont, from where formerly warring factions would share devolved power and a future.

While the DUP and Sinn Fein have bickered incessantly in Stormont to the point it didn’t meet for over a year, a Catholic middle class has swollen in size and there are more ‘peace lines’ (high dividing walls) between some Catholic and Protestant communities than during the conflict. In fact, Belfast has three times more ‘peace lines’ now than it did during the conflict. That’s an impressive 21 miles of wall through a city at peace.

The trappings of Britishness

Police maintain order outside city hall and prepare to trail and monitor loyalist activity as they return to East Belfast | ©Joshua Hayes / Creative Commons

For Loyalists, this period has been somewhat of an eye opener. The cost of peace has been often at the expense of things they hold most valuable: the trappings of Britishness.  

The year-long flag dispute of 2012-2013, over no longer flying the Union Flag everyday over Belfast City Hall, was an indication of just how fiercely Unionists and Loyalists valued these trappings: far more than the English, Scottish and Welsh, value their Britishness. The idea of Scottish independence angers, bewilders and terrifies them. Republicans representing Republicanism, far more effectively than Unionists do Unionism, both deflates and destabilises them.  

The idea of Scottish independence angers, bewilders and terrifies them. 

Aside from when they have made great sacrifice during wartime, Unionists have perhaps never felt more British than the time the DUP saved the British government from a vote of ‘no confidence’ in January 2019.  

Such was their power in Westminster, Arlene Foster, first minister of Northern Ireland, was not only kissed on the cheek by Boris Johnson the year before in Belfast, she’d been to Downing Street on the eve of a non-confidence vote to discuss keeping Theresa May’s Conservative government in power and stopping any likelihood of Jeremy Corbyn gaining power.

Believing in Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Brexit proved to be a fatal flaw. 

The majority of PUL voters (some 60%) wanted Brexit, but in return for their political support, Boris Johnson delivered a deal which to all intents and purposes created a trading border in the middle of the Irish Sea. A border that now separates Britain and her most loyal and reverent subjects. 

Antagonisms & Triggers

Two Belfast murals painted on the side of a building

But this rioting is not just about Brexit.  Even in the midst of a riot there exists all kinds of different antagonisms and triggers – and even recreation.

While the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) proved to be a key factor in the rising resentment, it has only further exacerbated an already deep gloom over the DUP’s governance. It also undermines Unionism in the minds of Loyalists.

The DUP is the author of this misfortune and as attention turns to whether a United Ireland is possible in this lifetime, the party’s leader Arlene Foster told the Irish state broadcaster last week she would abandon living in a United Ireland to go elsewhere. The DUP’s high profile MP, Sammy Wilson, even wrote a letter talking up “Guerrilla warfare” to undermine the NIP.

The Loyalist response has been to accuse the DUP of ‘Rollover Unionism’, as not only has the DUP contributed to the creation of the border in the Irish Sea, it also appears more than willing to run away from it.

Poverty and crime still blight the Loyalist community in Belfast. Those huge peace walls are not, in the main, separating large houses with expansive gardens from the ‘have nots’, but, more often than not they separate the same houses with the similar sized small front gardens (if at all). For many of these people, the promise that the GFA would deliver a future of peace and prosperity seem as a distant dream.

The funeral in June last year of former IRA man Bobby Storey was a further antagonism to Unionists and Loyalists. Not only was the alleged former head of IRA intelligence given a large and ceremonial send off, but his funeral was attended by senior Sinn Fein figures, including the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill. Thousands lined the streets for the funeral cortege. 

Many in Northern Ireland felt Sinn Fein had flouted Covid restrictions 

Many in Northern Ireland felt Sinn Fein had flouted Covid restrictions though Sinn Fein maintains it followed the law. Around the same time, the illegal Loyalist militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), buried one of its own men, also seemingly without following instructions – as you would perhaps expect for an illegal organisation.

While waiting so long for the Public Prosecutor to deliver its findings after an investigation into the Storey funeral, Loyalist paramilitaries withdrew from the GFA in protest at the NIP. They later said they would also no longer consult with police about marches and parades. 

Indeed, the day rioting started in Belfast, a Loyalist march was held with masked men leading at the front in Tigers Bay, not the gangly teenagers we’ve seen in the other riots.

Loyalist paramilitaries

Belfast peace wall

It became obvious to many observers that the decision of the Loyalist paramilitaries to withdraw their support from the Good Friday Agreement massively increased the chances of a significant outbreak or disturbance occurring.

The decision by the Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders for breaches of Covid restrictions triggered rioting in Derry/Londonderry, which again was clearly instigated by paramilitaries.

Although some ‘renegade’ paramilitary groups were definitely behind the early disturbances, elsewhere there was a real sense that the withdrawal of cooperation of any sort by paramilitaries with the police was a green light for those who wanted to riot to do so with tacit approval. Rather than lead, the DUP was in the middle of a political meltdown with their attention focused on a future electoral disaster. 

As rioting began around Northern Ireland, in Carrickfergus, some 10 miles from Belfast, the UVF was reported to have told Catholic families to leave a housing estate. It’s reported the police helped families move and did not arrest those issuing the threats against them.

The rioting is about a bewildering sense of loss of power 

The rioting is about a bewildering sense of loss of power – and leadership – things so few of those rioters know or can ever grasp. It’s almost about the very idea of things they never have. They are growing up in the shadows of men (and women) whose names are etched and recorded on their walls who fought and died for those ideals. 

As rioting goes, the perceived slights, slants and disasters facing Loyalists are palpable – as is Arlene Foster’s preparedness to abandon them. In the midst of her own debacle, Foster called for the Chief Constable of the PSNI to resign and tweeted the blame for Loyalist rioters lay with Sinn Fein. 

As always happens, when there’s no bread on the table and no one else to blame, the Unionists send the Loyalists out to fight for their supper.

Read Matthew Collins on the future for Northern Ireland