Acting on cue

Ghost dancers of loyalism

Riots in the Six Counties confirm once again that the Good Friday agreement settled nothing, writes Derek James

All the old (along with some new) media clichés about Northern Ireland were very much in evidence in the reporting of last week’s violence in Belfast. Framed by pictures of burning vehicles and petrol-bomb-throwing youths, the headlines warned us that it was “back to the bad old days” and sounded the alarm about “how fragile peace really is”.1

Furthermore, to heighten the sense of crisis and shock we were constantly reminded that these “ugly scenes” occurred on “the 23rd anniversary of the 1998 peace agreement, designed to end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland forever”.2 Politicians - from the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and UK prime minister Boris Johnson through to US president Joe Biden - were not far behind in condemning the violence and urging calm, lest the week of night-time riots escalated into more general violence.

Although initial reports focused on shadowy figures manipulating impressionable young people from the sidelines or suggested that loyalist drug dealers had incited the riots to distract attention from their activities, other explanations quickly emerged. Many commentators and unionist politicians highlighted the impact of Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol as causes of loyalist discontent, along with the decision not to prosecute leading Sinn Féin politicians for breaching Covid regulations during the funeral of a senior IRA figure, Bobby Storey, last summer.3 Whilst publicly condemning the violence, unionist leaders argued that ‘their ‘community - betrayed by Westminster over the protocol and now no longer an unchallenged majority in the Six Counties - felt it was losing out and that nationalists now had the upper hand.

The condemnations were quickly followed up by the usual blame game and positioning by politicians and governments, as they attempted to stabilise the situation, whilst simultaneously manoeuvring to gain advantage from the crisis. Arlene Foster has been calling for the resignation of Simon Byrne, PSNI chief constable, over the Storey funeral, meanwhile Micheál Martin has been calling for all parties to support the PSNI and the forces of law and order.

From Thursday April 8 onwards public calls for a high-level summit between Dublin and London were combined with the usual back-channel diplomacy and contacts with ‘people on the ground in Belfast’ in attempts to contain the violence before the expected much larger loyalist protests on the weekend of April 10-11. Then fate took a hand to pause the violence.

The announcement of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh on Friday April 9 was met with calls by loyalist groups that “all protests by the “Protestant, Unionist Loyalist community” (PUL) should “be postponed as a mark of respect to the Queen and the Royal Family”.4 After some rioting in North Belfast on that Friday night, these calls have been heeded and we wait to see if the usual uneasy peace will continue after the mourning period for Prince Phillip ends on Saturday April 17.

No solution

The very strong assumption that these events were somehow deviant and abnormal in a society governed by “the 1998 peace agreement designed to end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland forever” (my emphasis) is endlessly reinforced by media commentary and the political condemnation framing the rioting as a “resurgence of violence that threatens to drag Northern Ireland back into the past”.5

In fact, the reverse is true: far from resolving underlying political contradictions, the 1998 Good Friday agreement and the peace process were originally designed to primarily manage and contain conflict. Moreover, during the recurring crises of that have characterised the last 23 years, ‘the new dispensation’ has only succeeded in building political institutions and creating political dynamics that simply reproduce and sustain conflict in the Six Counties.

Seen in this light, the events of last week should not perhaps surprise us. From the ritual condemnations of politicians through to the political recriminations about the impact of Brexit and the alienation of ‘PUL communities’, the explanations offered, and the reactions within Northern Ireland, seem to follow a depressingly familiar pattern.

Even so, some features of the rioting do deserve further attention. It was confined largely to loyalist districts, such as Belfast’s Shankill Road and Tiger’s Bay, along with similar areas in neighbouring Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus. There were also sporadic outbreaks in the loyalist areas of Derry and some other smaller towns.

Whilst loyalist violence was largely directed at the police, the most serious outbreaks involved youths from the loyalist Shankill confronting young people from the nationalist Springfield Road area of west Belfast across the interface at Lanark Way, whilst a potentially similar inter-communal confrontation in north Belfast between the nationalist New Lodge and loyalist Tiger’s Bay was averted by the police. On Wednesday night (April 7) the police used water cannon during fighting with nationalist youths who had gathered on the Springfield Road in response to possible loyalist incursions into their area. Although there was some dramatic footage of petrol bombs lighting up the night sky, the rioting was confined to quite limited geographical areas, which had a long experience of such violence, and the numbers involved were relatively small (in hundreds rather than thousands).

As might be expected, these are areas of social deprivation and unemployment, and it has become a commonplace to link the rioting to the sense of exclusion and alienation felt by ‘the PUL community’. For young people in particular, the argument goes, the future seems bleak and striking back in this way seems the only option open to them. If these discontented young people provide the raw human material for disorder, then it is the political and communal dynamics of Northern Ireland which determine how their anger and resentment will be expressed and channelled.

In the communalised and sectarian politics of the region, strengthened by the structures of the 1998 agreement, unionist politicians attempt to mobilise their followers through a politics of grievance and resentment, largely directed against the nationalist population. The demographic shifts in favour of Catholics, the long-term decline of unionist political, social and economic power since the 1970s, and the forced acceptance of power-sharing with nationalists at Stormont have all been deeply destabilising for the unionist bloc and have undermined the self-confidence of both its political leadership and supporters. In contrast, nationalists like to present themselves - and, in turn, are so described by unionists - as the winners in the post-1998 set-up.

Sinn Féin’s rationale for its ‘peace process’ strategy seems justified by its political successes on both sides of the border: its campaign for a border poll is built on the sense that history and demography are moving in favour of Northern Ireland’s nationalists and the cause of Irish reunification. In this context, the Bobby Storey funeral was, for unionists, an egregious example of republican triumphalism and so far too good an opportunity for the Democratic Unionist Party’s leader and first minister, Arlene Foster, to miss. But if this ‘grievance’ is really just a chance for some symbolic point-scoring by unionist politicians rather than a fundamental cause of loyalist alienation, then the impact of Brexit is of much greater significance for unionists.

What next?

Boris Johnson’s deal with the European Union in January kept Northern Ireland within the single market and created in effect a new border in the Irish Sea, which symbolically and economically separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Although there have been some relatively minor economic problems, the main issues for both unionist politicians and loyalists have been political rather than economic. Their place in the union is under threat and reunification looms. Given Johnson’s courting of the unionists during the Brexit referendum campaign and his oft-proclaimed commitment to the union, the Northern Ireland protocol has created a deep sense of betrayal and a stark reminder for unionists of the real relationship that exists between Westminster and Stormont.

For loyalists in particular the protocol became an issue around which to mobilise and try to regain credibility amongst declining support. The Loyalist Command Council (LCC) - an umbrella group for various paramilitary organisations - withdrew its support for the Good Friday agreement and warned of escalating tension within ‘the PUL community.’ These warnings and the rhetoric of both loyalist paramilitaries and elected unionist politicians, like Jeffrey Donaldson, suggested that hostility to the ‘border in the Irish Sea’ was growing and might result in serious disorder if unionists voices continued to be ignored by London.6

This is the wider political context for the outbreak of rioting in loyalist areas. However, it is unlikely that the teenagers throwing stones at the police and squaring up for a fight with their nationalist neighbours on the other side of the ‘peace walls’ are fully au fait with the complexities of the Northern Irish protocol or are completely up to speed on who makes the decisions regarding prosecutions for breaking Covid regulations. Whilst both respectable unionist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries might try during the present crisis to perform their historical function of exploiting Protestant working class opposition in their own interests, this is not going to work as it did in the past.

A motley band of angry teenagers and the dregs of loyalist paramilitarism are a rather pathetic stage army - hardly the resurrection of the mass loyalist mobilisation of the Ulster Workers’ Council in 1974 or the large (but unsuccessful) campaign against the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Given the underlying politics of the Six Counties, loyalist discontent will undoubtedly continue to flare up again in riots and protests. However, the rioters in Lanark Way are the ghost dancers of loyalism: despite their youth, they represent only the past, not any coherent kind of future.

  1. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9459897/SUE-REID-reports-frontline-eruption-violence-Northern-Ireland.html.↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

  3. bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-northern-ireland-56661771; economist.com/britain/2021/04/08/brexit-is-the-catalyst-for-rioting-in-northern-ireland.↩︎

  4. independent.co.uk/news/uk/belfast-riots-news-prince-philip-b1829473.html.↩︎

  5. dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9459897/SUE-REID-reports-frontline-eruption-violence-Northern-Ireland.html; ft.com/content/d57085a8-e8b1-47e9-b030-1ece759aeef1.↩︎

  6. economist.com/britain/2021/03/11/anger-and-division-among-loyalists-over-the-northern-ireland-protocol.↩︎