April 16, 2021

IntelBrief: Echoes of Past Troubles: Northern Ireland Plagued by Sectarian Violence

(AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Rioting and attacks against police have rocked Northern Ireland over the past week in echoes of earlier decades of sectarian conflict and violence.
  • There are several factors contributing to the most recent violence, including concerns over the political implications of Brexit. 
  • Disinformation has proliferated online, galvanizing groups based on sectarian identities and exploiting impacts of the pandemic.
  • Sectarian marches and murals commemorating “martyrs” serve as reminders of the potential for volatility and rapid escalation of violence.

Rioting, violent demonstrations, and attacks against law enforcement have rocked Northern Ireland over the past week, bringing to memory the legacy of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Rioters – some as young as 12 – have repeatedly lobbed petrol bombs, thrown rocks, bottles, and homemade projectiles, and even burned a bus. Nearly one hundred police officers have been injured to date in the violence. Journalists and photographers have been intimidated and attacked. The unrest has unfolded across towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland but concentrated particularly along sectarian borders in communities, reviving tensions between predominantly Catholic nationalists, favoring Irish unification, and predominantly Protestant unionists, wishing to remain part of the UK. 

Reports suggest there are multiple converging factors contributing to the recent violence. First, there is growing concern in Protestant circles that Brexit has led London to deprioritize Northern Ireland and allowed a de facto “hard” border in the Irish Sea, resulting in new checks on trade between goods flowing between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Unionists have expressed a strong sense of betrayal by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, particularly since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) offered decisive support in favor of Brexit. Second, there has been anger in Protestant communities that Sinn Fein politicians, allied with the Catholic republican movement, were not properly disciplined after breaking COVID-19 lockdown procedures to congregate for a funeral in June 2020. Consequently, there have been accusations of partiality on the part of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and calls from the DUP for the resignation of the Chief. 

Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is particularly dangerous due to the history of terrorism, insurgency, and guerilla warfare over several decades of the Troubles which led to over 3,600 deaths. While the Good Friday Agreement ostensibly ended the conflict, ushering in a power-sharing arrangement and disarming sectarian groups, there are still myriad paramilitary organizations active in the country, and weapons are not difficult to obtain. Moreover, propaganda remains a potent weapon in a country still in the nascent stages of recovering from the trauma of decades of conflict. Disinformation has proliferated online, galvanizing groups based on sectarian identities. The PSNI has downplayed the role played by paramilitaries, and reports have highlighted the role of criminal organizations in the recent violence, but some analysts are less sanguine about the involvement of non-state armed groups. Ominously, last month the Loyalist Communities Council of paramilitaries signaled that it would no longer support the Good Friday Agreement. This is a foreboding sign demonstrating just how fragile peace and stability can be, even twenty-three years after the groundbreaking settlement.

Although many rioters were too young to have experienced the Troubles themselves, the recent violence highlights the persistence of tensions between the two communities. Sectarian marches and murals commemorating fighters and activists on both sides serve as constant reminders of the volatility and potential for quick escalation of violence. Certain dates and times of the year are known to spark rioting, including the Easter season, where Catholics commemorate Irish Republican Army (IRA) figures, and mid-July, when Protestants celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. Northern Ireland has also been hampered by ongoing political morass. In 2017, the power-sharing Executive collapsed, meaning that critical cross-community issues were not given the attention they deserved for years. 

If violence continues, there is the possibility of retaliation evolving into something more intractable. Micheal Martin, the Republic of Ireland’s Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, noted that, “We owe it to the agreement generation and indeed future generations not to spiral back to that dark place of sectarian murders and political discord.” The United States has been deeply invested in the Good Friday Agreement, and senior politicians had previously indicated concerns about the prospect of a hard border resulting from Brexit compromising the fragile peace. The Biden administration weighed in on the recent violence, expressing Washington’s support for a “secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace.” For many years, Northern Ireland has provided a trove of examples of community-based approaches to preventing violent extremism and working to support victims of terrorism, offering hope to communities grappling with similar challenges around the world. The international community will be watching closely to see if Northern Ireland’s politicians have the courage to put an end to the fighting now, before things devolve further, and before it becomes difficult to speak of the Troubles in the past tense.