World "Unionists feel abandoned by London since Brexit"

“Unionists feel abandoned by London since Brexit”

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A young Irish nationalist activist in Belfast faces the Police – Paul Faith / AFP

  • Since March 29, violent protests have shaken Northern Ireland.
  • These tensions find their origins in multiple evils: Brexit, Covid, nationalists against unionists …
  • For specialist Clémence Fourton, the United Kingdom is not doing enough to calm Northern Irish anger.

Belfast does not take off and nights of tension and riots follow one another in Northern Ireland. Police water cannons against Molotov cocktails and throwing stones, clashes have been animating the nights of Northern Ireland since March 29, the date of the first demonstrations in the city of Londonderry, before the fire spread to several other cities.

Anger that bears many names: Brexit, impoverishment linked to Covid and the economic crisis, and even a return of tensions between “British” Protestants and “Irish” Catholics. A fratricidal conflict which left 3,500 dead between 1969 and 1998. Clémence Fourton, lecturer in English studies at Sciences Po Lille, returns for 20 Minutes on the causes and consequences of these tensions.

Why is the situation degenerating in Northern Ireland?

Brexit is the fundamental element here. The Unionists – that is to say the Northern Irish who are in favor of Ireland continuing to be part of the United Kingdom – and in particular their political party the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) feel let down by Boris Johnson in the Brexit deal that has been reached with the European Union. An economic border with customs has been put in place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which is unacceptable to them as it amounts to treating Northern Ireland differently from other countries in the UK.

Boris Jonshon was forced to make a border between the UK and the European Union. It was either a border in Northern Ireland or a border between the two Ireland. But this second option was impossible because it reversed the Good Friday agreement of 1998, a national peace treaty between the two Ireland (Northern Ireland and Ireland), which avoids a material border between the two nations.

Infographic showing the consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland.
Infographic showing the consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland. – Gillian HANDYSIDE, Paz PIZARRO / AFP

There are also economic and social issues that explain the tensions. Most of the protesters come from the poorest areas of Belfast. The coronavirus crisis accentuates economic difficulties and puts people under pressure, in particular with closed youth support and reintegration associations, it is the end of a certain associative network. The North Irish also blame the economic frontier for increasing prices.

Finally, tensions between nationalists – who want to leave the United Kingdom and reunite Ireland – and unionists escalated during the funeral of Bobby Storey, a former figure of the IRA, in June 2020. While restrictive measures were still in order, it was a very big funeral, with in particular the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and thousands of people in the street, which was very badly spent at the time. Two weeks ago, it was decided not to make an investigation or prosecution on the holding of this funeral, the Unionists then had a feeling of double standards and of a complacency towards the nationalists.

The problems do not seem to be remedied quickly?

The causes are what they are, but there is a lack of political attention, an absence of symbolic gesture. There could be a support plan, a stronger economic recovery in Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson did not even go there and the Unionist community feels abandoned by the government in London. There is only a criticism of the violence, without trying to calm the situation.

Doesn’t this border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom and this feeling of abandonment give ground to grind the nationalist movement?

Nationalists have effectively made this Brexit and the way the negotiations unfolded one more piece in favor of Irish reunification. We must not forget that in the referendum, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit.

But all this only increased tensions again between nationalists and unionists, and this is what worried the most in the demonstrations: the transition from a local riot against the police to clashes between the two camps, to the point that the “walls of peace” (which separate the Unionist and nationalist districts) have experienced clashes.

It should not be forgotten that most of the demonstrators are young adolescents, born after the peace process, and have not experienced the consequences of civil war and community tensions. They are not yet fully aware of their actions, nor what they may cost the country. This is why the situation must be resolved quickly.

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