Explained: What is behind the latest unrest in Northern Ireland?

Young people threw bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs at police and set fire to hijacked cars and a bus during a week of violence in the streets of Northern Ireland. Police responded with rubber bullets and water cannons.

The streets were quieter on Friday night, as community leaders called for calm following the death of Prince Philip, the husband of 99-year-old Queen Elizabeth II. But small gangs of young people bombarded police with objects and set a car on fire during sporadic outbreaks in Belfast.

The chaotic scenes stirred memories of decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, known as the “Troubles”. A 1998 peace deal ended large-scale violence but failed to resolve deep-rooted tensions in Northern Ireland.

A look at the context of the new violence:

Why is Northern Ireland a disputed land?

Geographically, Northern Ireland is part of Ireland. Politically, it’s part of the UK.

Ireland, long dominated by its larger neighbor, liberated itself around 100 years ago after centuries of colonization and a difficult union. Twenty-six of its 32 counties have become an independent, predominantly Roman Catholic country. Six counties in the north, with a Protestant majority, remained British.

The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland has faced discrimination in employment, housing and other areas of the Protestant-ruled state. In the 1960s, a Catholic civil rights movement demanded change, but faced a harsh response from government and police. Some people on the Catholic and Protestant side formed armed groups which escalated the violence with bombings and shootings.

The British Army was deployed in 1969, initially to keep the peace. The situation deteriorated into a conflict between Irish Republican militants who wanted to unite with the south, loyalist paramilitaries who sought to keep British Northern Ireland, and British troops.

During three decades of conflict, more than 3,600 people, the majority of them civilians, have been killed in bombings and shootings. Most were in Northern Ireland, although the Irish Republican Army also set off bombs in London and other British cities.

How did the conflict end?

In the 1990s, after secret talks and with the help of the diplomatic efforts of Ireland, Britain and the United States, the fighters reached a peace deal. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 saw the paramilitaries lay down their arms and establish a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government for Northern Ireland. The question of Northern Ireland’s ultimate status was postponed: it would remain British as long as the majority wanted, but a future reunification referendum was not ruled out.

While the peace has lasted for the most part, small dissident groups from the Irish Republican Army have launched occasional attacks on the security forces, and there have been outbreaks of sectarian violence in the streets.

Politically, the power-sharing arrangement has seen periods of success and failure. Belfast’s administration collapsed in January 2017 over a botched green energy project. He remained suspended for more than two years in a rift between the British Unionist and Irish Nationalist parties over cultural and political issues, including the status of the Irish language. The government of Northern Ireland returned to work in early 2020, but mistrust remains deep on both sides.

How has Brexit complicated things?

Northern Ireland has been called a ‘problem child’ of Brexit, the UK’s divorce from the European Union. As the only part of the UK to have a border with an EU country, Ireland, it was the most difficult issue to resolve after Britain narrowly voted in 2016 to leave the bloc of 27 nations.

An open Irish border, over which people and goods move freely, underpins the peace process, making the people of Northern Ireland feel at home in Ireland and the UK.

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The British Conservative government’s insistence on a ‘hard Brexit? which took the country out of the economic order of the EU resulted in the creation of new barriers and trade controls. Britain and the EU agreed the border could not be in Ireland due to the risk it would pose to the peace process. The alternative was to put it, metaphorically, in the Irish Sea? between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The arrangement has alarmed British trade unionists, who say it weakens Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and could strengthen calls for Irish reunification.

Why has the violence broken out now?

Much of the violence has been in Protestant areas in and around Belfast and Northern Ireland’s second largest city, Londonderry, although the unrest has spread to Catholic neighborhoods.

North Ireland Hijacked cars burn on the Peace Wall on Lanark Way. (AP)

Britain left the EU’s economic embrace on December 31, and the new trade deals quickly became an irritant for trade unionists in Northern Ireland who want to stay in the UK. Early trade problems, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, have led to empty supermarket shelves, fueling the alarm. Border staff were temporarily withdrawn from Northern Ireland ports in February after threatening graffiti appeared to target port workers.

There was anger that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has long insisted that there would be no new trade controls in the wake of Brexit, downplayed the scale of the changes brought about by leaving the EU. Some members of the British loyalist community in Northern Ireland feel their identity is under threat.

Many worshipers believe that, de facto, Northern Ireland has ceased to be as much of a part of the UK as it was, Henry Patterson, professor of politics at Ulster University, told Sky News .