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Loyalist rioting reframes the perennial question: who governs Northern Ireland?


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When rioting erupted in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland in March 2021, commentators and politicians warned of a return to the troubled past. On 4 March, the Loyalist Communities Council, representing several paramilitary organisations, withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, noting the 'strength of feeling' in relation to the Brexit deal's Northern Ireland protocol.

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the DUP, called for an end to the unrest, while diverting attention to ‘the real law breakers’ in the mainstream republican party, Sinn Féin. To date, more than 100 police officers have been injured.

The multi-layered origins of the current unrest enable diverse political actors to polemicise selectively. Across the UK, for opponents of the Conservative government and of Brexit more broadly, the disorder indicts the Leave campaign. For critics of the DUP, working-class loyalist outrage demonstrates the political bankruptcy of a party which has demanded a hard Brexit and stoked unionist anxieties, only to repudiate the Northern Ireland protocol and disown rioters. Sinn Féin’s adversaries, meanwhile, point to the controversy surrounding the funeral of former Belfast IRA commander Bobby Storey during the lockdown in June 2020. When prosecutors announced that the Sinn Féin organisers would not be charged, Foster declared that ‘the police assisted in breaking the law’.

There are, of course, specific circumstances underpinning today’s crisis. In some of the UK’s most underprivileged communities, the limitations of the supposed post-1998 ‘peace dividend’ has never been more apparent. Among loyalists, the fallout from the Storey funeral has undoubtedly compounded a pervasive sense of loss in a zero-sum political dynamic. The sheer, illicit frisson of rioting after thirteen months of stringent lockdown restrictions must be also be considered.

But a longer historical analysis highlights recurring political themes in the current unrest, and signals attention to the British government’s keenly awaited response. Unionists’ longstanding suspicions of British governments are as old as Northern Ireland itself. Traditionally, unionists have considered their prime adversaries as Irish republican insurrectionists, and the Dublin government. Through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the Dublin government amended its constitutional Articles 2 and 3, renouncing its irridentist claims on Northern Ireland. Embracing Sinn Féin’s exclusively constitutional methods, the Provisional IRA declared its ‘armed struggle’ over in July 2005.

Yet unionists’ profound misgivings about British governments have endured. More alarming even than the republican challenge is the existential fear of British ministerial indifference to the union. These fears are reinforced by their long history. Just as Edward Carson vowed to resist Westminster’s implementation of Home Rule in 1912, so loyalists vociferously opposed British diplomatic initiatives in the Sunningdale Agreement (1973) and the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985).

In 1974, the Ulster Workers’ Council’s (UWC) general strike brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. Outright hostility to Sunningdale’s all-Ireland ministerial council informed the UWC’s scorn for ‘bungling… arrogant, pompous, and badly informed colonial administrators’. Militant unionists rebuked Westminster with the resonant phrase ‘Ulster is nobody’s colony’. In 1985, at the height of the republican offensive, ardent unionists pinpointed the British government as the weak link. Addressing a mass rally against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, DUP leader Ian Paisley burned an effigy of Margaret Thatcher and implored his God to ‘take vengeance upon this wicked, treacherous, lying woman’. The shadowy Third Force and Ulster Resistance movements, formed in 1981 and 1985 respectively, stipulated that if the British would not take seriously republican insurrection and Dublin’s supposed meddling, then loyalists would take matters into their own hands.

In the absence of reassurance from London, loyalists increasingly define themselves through a majoritarian position within Northern Ireland. Concomitantly, loyalist rioting today raises the stakes on the central question: who governs in Ulster? The history of loyalist mobilisation suggests the ball now lies in the British government’s court. In 1974, the UWC strike forced government back-pedalling; in 1985 and 1986, despite substantial propaganda coups, loyalists failed to overturn the Anglo-Irish Agreement. How the British government responds to the current unrest will shape loyalism’s prospects. 

Past crises have propelled divergent unionist trajectories. In 1974, the massed ranks of anti-Sunningdale unionists could celebrate the demise of power-sharing protocols. But when the British government refuses to address loyalist demands, unionism is forced to reassess its position. When the Anglo-Irish Agreement survived the major protests of 1985 and 1986, some unionists argued pragmatically that a power-sharing arrangement was inevitable. A politicising tendency in the UDA proposed a devolved assembly to rejuvenate the union after years of conflict. Unionism’s leading statesmen, James Molyneaux and Ian Paisley, remained unconvinced. But, crucially, into the 1990s, unionist and loyalist activists commenced an internal strategic review. 

Loyalist suspicion of British governments is nothing new, but protesters – whether in the formal offices of the DUP, or on the streets of west Belfast – hope to elicit from Britain, as a minimum, a symbolic assertion of the union’s integrity. The British government’s response to the current unrest remains to be seen. Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time on 15 April 2021, Conservative Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin suggested that the cabinet might consider reviewing the Northern Ireland protocol. But Jenkin stressed the political obstacles to such a revision, both at home and in Brussels. Loyalist protesters have led their charges up the proverbial hill. Westminster’s response will determine what awaits them on the other side.   

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.
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