Has Brexit Reawakened ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland?

by Chris Pratt
Image: Tovarisch14 / Flickr

When the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU) in June 2016, it was not long before concerns were raised with regards to how Brexit would impact the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland in 1998 after the region had been rocked with over 30 years of deadly political clashes (now known as ‘The Troubles’ between loyalists (those who wanted to see Northern Ireland enter an even closer union with the UK mainland) and nationalists (those who would like to see Northern Ireland incorporated into Ireland as a single country). Brexit has further complicated the issues surrounding the border in Northern Ireland, as the UK was forced to implement a hybrid internal border in the Irish Sea between the UK Mainland and Northern Ireland. This hybrid border ensured that the UK could exit the EU while also avoiding the establishment of a hard border in Ireland.

Brexit put negotiators in an extremely tough position with regards to Northern Ireland. Nationalists would not accept the implementation of a hard border in Ireland while unionists did not want to see restrictions placed between it and any of the other devolved administrations of the UK. Both sides have a history of paramilitary activity, which only further complicates matters. 

The political unrest that has been ongoing since late March in Northern Ireland is primarily driven by loyalist paramilitary groups and gangs. Loyalists feel that the implementation of an internal border has reduced Northern Ireland to a second-class position within the United Kingdom. This sentiment, combined with a funeral gathering put on by the nationalist Sinn Féin in June 2020 that violated COVID-19 public health restrictions, have created strong feelings of resentment between the opposing sides.

In order to complete Brexit, the UK government was forced to push through an exit agreement that left loyalists feeling as though the voice that they had been guaranteed under the Good Friday Agreement had been stripped away from them. The Good Friday Agreement had been extremely successful at maintaining peace in Northern Ireland, but it was only effective because all parties bought in. This means that the joint-assembly in Northern Ireland has been handed the difficult task of restoring confidence in its political institutions, amidst a backdrop where political violence has all too often been the favoured tactic of those who feel voiceless. 

Regardless of whether the UK “gains” or “losses” from Brexit (that remains up to debate), I would argue that if Northern Ireland is allowed to disintegrate into a nation characterized by political instability once again, Brexit will have been a failure. A key argument of the “Leave” campaign was to rid the UK of foreign, unelected infringements on national sovereignty. However, that mission can only be accomplished with peace in Ireland. Throughout ‘The Troubles,’ everyday citizens of the UK and Ireland were forced to live in fear from terror attacks and political violence. City streets were turned into battlefields, neighbourhoods were painfully divided and children were indoctrinated into campaigns of guerilla warfare. The “benefits” of Brexit can only reach full recognition if participatory peace is restored in Northern Ireland. Otherwise, political unrest will severely hamper post-Brexit social capital and the nationwide standard of living of the UK.

Brexit has occurred, but the fallout still needs management. Loyalists need to be brought into the conversation and the UK Government has a responsibility to help (instead of passing the task onto a devolved government in Northern Ireland that is already facing credibility issues). Those throwing petrol bombs may not seem open to conversation, but the leaders encouraging this political unrest need to be found and be encouraged to join the ongoing dialogue. Excluding loyalists from this significant conversation will only spur stronger acts of resistance. Only when all parties are at the table can productive negotiations occur.

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