Northern Ireland has seen a spike in protest activity this week as the authorities refused to prosecute members of Sinn Fein over their attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey, former Irish Republican Leader (IRA) leader. The incidents also come in light of growing discontent in the country among unionists over the consequences of Brexit.
Iain Begg, Professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science, discussed with Sputnik the current social unrest in Northern Ireland. Professor went deeper and spoke in detail about the history of the conflict between nationalists and unionists, and suggested possible solutions to the conflict. In his view, there are compromises that some sides are going to have to take to limit the damage that’s done.
Sputnik: According to the media, one of the main reasons for the current social unrest is Northern Ireland’s new trading arrangements under the protocol. How much does this disagreement really contribute to the destabilizing situation in NI?
Iain Begg: I think it’d be fair to say that the Brexit trade agreement lit the fuse for what’s happening, but it’s building on decades or even centuries of animosity between the two sides in Northern Ireland: the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority. It’s worth recalling that it is nearly 100 years since Northern Ireland was first created as a result of the giving Ireland this independence and the Protestants in Northern Ireland objected to that, which is the reason we have Northern Ireland in the first place. We then have to go back as well to what’s called the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement, which tried to settle all the troubles that we saw in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards. That peace agreement brokered by the Americans, signed up to by the European Union and held by both sides, Ireland and Britain, required that there be no border in Ireland. And as soon as you say that there could be no border in Ireland, you have a problem, which is that once the United Kingdom is outside the single market and the customs union, you need a border somewhere.
And the decision in the agreement for withdrawal and subsequently for the trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU was, in effect that nobody says it in formal terms, to create a border within the United Kingdom, in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the larger island. To begin with they thought this could be done relatively straightforwardly with only minimal restrictions. But the experience of the first three months of Brexit has been that it does create problems for Northern Ireland: food supply; Amazon refusing to deliver. And that has irritated the unionist side in Northern Ireland. And the clue is in the word “unionist.” It wants to be part of the United Kingdom. The Unionists don’t like the idea that there’s now, in effect, a border, however minimal, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which they want to be part of as part of the United Kingdom. So, it’s one of these impossible tangles. You need a border, but you don’t want to either in the Irish Sea or in Ireland. So what do you do? And this has been something that’s caused friction in the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. For Russian viewers, this is a bit like trying to deal with the Chechens.
Sputnik: One of the reasons for public anger in NI was that Sinn Féin members were not charged over for attending Bobby Storey’s funeral, despite lockdown measures. Will the standing of Sinn Fein (which won second place in Dáil Éireann in the 2020 elections), change?
Iain Begg: There’s two different things to say on this. First is that funerals in Northern Ireland have always had a very strong political significance. There are many occasions where funerals have been attended by one or either side in a way which irritates the opposite side. The agreement to go to the funeral a few days ago was because a prominent, some would say freedom fighter, others would say terrorist on the nationalist, the Republican side has died. And therefore, Sinn Fein members felt they ought to attend because it’s part of the tribalism of Northern Ireland to attend. So that’s one side of it. And the other side of it is that, had they not done so, Sinn Fein would have lost face with their nationalist community. It’s almost a political obligation on them to attend. So on the contrary, it will strengthen the Sinn Fein members, even though it causes friction with the Protestant majority, and some would say with the new overall government of Northern Ireland, which itself is designed to be power sharing between the two sides.