Paul Burns has lived through some of the worst days of Northern Ireland’s dark past and he never thought he’d see the violence come roaring back.
Like many people of his generation, the 57-year-old pastor at King’s Christian Fellowship Church in Sandy Row, a loyalist enclave in south Belfast, set aside his hatred years ago and got involved in the peace process. He’s now pastoring people from all backgrounds and he’s worried that the painstaking effort to build bridges between Catholic and Protestant communities is about to come crashing down.
“I know what reconciliation is. I know what hurt is. I know what damage is. This younger generation doesn’t,” he said. “You could see the peace process go. It is teetering at the moment.”
Loyalist rage has been building for months across Northern Ireland and it boiled over this week with brutal force. Hundreds of young people took to the streets almost every night, setting cars on fire and pelting police with bricks and petrol bombs. Nearly 90 police officers have been injured and more than a dozen protesters arrested, including three 14-year-old boys on Friday. For the first time in years police used water cannons to quell rioters and some gates along parts of the Peace Wall, which separates nationalist and loyalist communities, have been shut tight.
Politicians from all parties have appealed for calm and the leaders of loyalist paramilitary groups have urged their followers to hold back. But there’s growing concern that the appeals won’t be heeded and that bored, disgruntled young people have lost faith in all authority figures.
”This has been bubbling up for a while,” said Andrew Hutchinson, a 24-year-old unionist who abhors the violence but relates to the anger. “It’s going to take something extreme to stop it.”
The list of grievances among loyalists is long – a biased police force, a disinterested government and favouritism for nationalists who want to end British rule – but most have seized on Brexit as their biggest outrage.
Ironically, loyalists were among the most fervent supporters of Brexit during the 2016 referendum campaign. Their main political voice, the Democratic Unionist Party, was the only major party in Northern Ireland to back Britain’s departure from the European Union.
For DUP supporters, leaving the EU was a move further away from Ireland and a chance to squash talk of Irish unification. And even though Northern Ireland bucked the national trend and voted against Brexit – by 56 to 44 per cent – the DUP stuck to its guns and backed Britain’s Conservative government as it negotiated the terms of the United Kingdom’s divorce.
There were plenty of warnings about what could go wrong. Experts said a disorderly Brexit could damage the peace process and undermine the 1998 Good Friday accord, which ended decades of sectarian violence by setting up carefully balanced institutions with intricate formulas for cross-community consensus.
The first signs of trouble came in late 2019 after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a thumping majority and promised to quickly settle the EU negotiations. He opted for a deal that essentially left Northern Ireland bound to the EU’s regulatory regime and customs union, the mechanism that allows for the free movement of goods. The idea was to ensure that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remained open to maintain unfettered commerce and uphold the essence of the Good Friday agreement.
The real-world consequences of Mr. Johnson’s pact – known as the Northern Ireland protocol – became all too clear when it came into effect last January.
Suddenly trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain got tangled up in red tape as shippers scrambled to conform to EU rules on everything from food packaging to environmental standards for plant soil. “Brexit and the protocol feel like an onion,” said Andrew Lynas, the managing director of Northern Ireland’s Lynas Foodservice. “As you continue to peel it, you keep crying. That is the honest reality on the ground as a business,” he told a parliamentary committee last month.
Soon there were empty store shelves in Belfast supermarkets as dozens of suppliers simply gave up shipping products to the province. The British government has moved to ease the restrictions but that has enraged EU officials. They’ve accuse Britain of violating the protocol and threatened legal action.
For many loyalists the protocol was the ultimate betrayal. In their eyes it severed Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain and left it as a kind of colony of the EU and Ireland.
Walk through almost any loyalist neighbourhood in Belfast and anger over the protocol is all too visible. “Loyalist Sandy Row will NEVER accept a border in the Irish Sea,” reads one of many signs hung on a lamppost. Another sign reads: “The battles we refuse to fight today become the hardships our children must endure tomorrow.” The DUP has taken up the cause and demanded that the protocol be scrapped.
“Loyalist anger is higher now than ever in my lifetime,” said William Parker, 64, who lives in Lisburn, outside Belfast. “I don’t want my grandkids to have to come through the war situation that I came through in my lifetime. I want peace for them, but not at any price.”
With fury building over Brexit, almost every other slight has been magnified. That includes a recent decision by prosecutors not to charge 24 Sinn Fein politicians for breaking COVID-19 physical-distancing rules last year when they attended a funeral for an Irish Republican Army leader. The move has led to cries of a two-tiered police system and rumours that officers have targeted loyalists.
Nationalists dismiss the accusations and blame paramilitary leaders for orchestrating the violence. They also argue that loyalists’ support for Brexit has come back to haunt them.
Those trying to find a middle ground worry that peace is slipping away. “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,” Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin said Saturday during a ceremony to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday accord.
For people living in the cross-fire, daily life has taken on another complication. “It’s just the fear of going out,” said Rachel Harwood, a 21-year-old pharmacy worker who lives in a loyalist part of East Belfast and sticks close to home. Referring to her parents days of living with the Troubles, she added, “You have the feeling you’re back in those times.”
That same fear is shared by Catherine, who lives in a nationalist area of Belfast called New Lodge and declined to give her family name out of concern for being targeted. The street in front her house has been the scene of running battles between nationalists and loyalists all week. On Saturday, the sidewalk was strewn with bits of brick, broken glass and the remnants of petrol bombs. “It’s too tense right now,” she said furtively during a lull in the protests. “I don’t know how this ends peacefully.”
On Sunday, an uneasy calm descended over Belfast as loyalist leaders encouraged their community to suspend protests until after the funeral of Prince Philip. But few expect that to last long and Northern Ireland is bracing for a long, hot summer.