Riots in Belfast

Brexit: the already controversial issue that seems to only deteriorate as time passes. It is a deal that many economists and politicians deem to be in no way beneficial to the United Kingdom. Despite the bitter trade agreement negotiations and other detrimental implications of Brexit, there is one crucial consideration so naively ignored by the British government: Northern Ireland. 

On Wednesday evening, protestors wreaked havoc in the streets of West Belfast as they had done every night for the past week. A bus was set aflame, and police were attacked and injured. Rioters from both nationalist and unionist communities hurled petrol bombs across the ‘peace lines’. First built in the 1970s by the British government to quell emerging violence, they are a visible reminder of the segregation between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. It is only fitting that they should serve as a central site for the violent clashes exacerbated by Brexit. 

Brexit has catalysed the violence that lingered on in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU requires a sea border in the Irish Sea, which will serve as an economic and symbolic barrier between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. In keeping with the traditional response to any issues arising in Ireland, Johnson claimed, “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality” in a tweet from Wednesday night. The establishment of the sea border will serve as a rejection of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and will solidify sentiments suggesting that Northern Ireland is not respected as an equal member of the UK, but rather as the colony it once was. Although increasing pressure is mounting on Johnson to act in response, it doesn’t seem likely that anything of significance will take place. The indifference on behalf of the Prime Minister towards the severity of the tensions in Northern Ireland can only further worsen the situation. If the Prime Minister would like to maintain good relations with Northern Ireland, the dialogue he suggests must take place – this cannot be treated as a situation of minor disruption, but rather one of the utmost importance. There are already concerns over the parallels between current incidents and those of the Troubles – as a return to the Troubles is certainly not desired, considerable action on behalf of both the British and Irish governments is a bare necessity.  

Compromise will be hard to reach: relations between the UK and EU are already in peril, and as previously mentioned, the situation in Northern Ireland is not being treated with the attention it deserves. Boris Johnson seems to be grossly underestimating the complexity of the situation he is being presented with. Trade difficulties with not only the EU but also with the US are being forecasted. Once again, the United States might have to help Northern Ireland out of any trouble. 

The riots in Belfast may be naively regarded as an unimportant, mild disruption over the insignificant issue of the sea border. However, the sea border is symbolic of the disrespect consistently given to Northern Ireland by the British government. While it is agreed that violence under any circumstances will be condemned (with democratic, civil dialogue being employed instead), without any means to address concerns, people are left with minimal options. Unless Northern Ireland is treated with the respect it deserves and a platform is given to the people to bring up any issues, we can expect something of a descent into a situation reminiscent of the Troubles. 

-Kate Grossenbacher


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