It is depressingly appropriate that a weekend which started on Good Friday was one which illustrated the shaky foundations of the agreement which brought a form of peace to Northern Ireland. Twenty three years on from that landmark deal, discontent among the Province's unionist and loyalist community is beginning to mount.
Violence once again erupted on the streets of Derry last night. It was a repeat of the ugly scenes that played out over Easter weekend in Belfast’s loyalist Sandy Row area. Petrol bombs were flung and a total of 32 police officers were injured. The latest spark is mounting unhappiness among unionist pro-British groups at the Northern Ireland Protocol. But there is also cross-community anger and incredulity over the Public Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute elements of the Sinn Fein leadership, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill over their attendance at the Covid-regulation busting funeral of IRA man Bobby Storey. In recent days similar rioting has extended to Ballykeel, deep in the unionist heartland of North Antrim, while masked men took to the streets of Portadown in a show of defiance.
For the casual observer, the sight of republicans thumbing their nose at authority and unionist anger is the sort of background stuff they would ascribe as being typical of 'over there'. However, the events of the past week have not occurred in isolation. They are instead the inevitable consequence of a dangerous drift encouraged in different ways at Stormont, in Whitehall and in Dublin.
— Hugh Pollock (@thebaldfather) April 7, 2021
The reflex reaction of unionist leaders to the decision not to prosecute the Sinn Fein leadership was to call for the head of the PSNI’s chief constable, Simon Byrne, over his force’s handling of the gathering. But this misses the point. The PSNI's actions – the force's Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd spoke with Sinn Fein figures to discuss the funeral’s policing in the days leading up to it – and the conclusions of the PPS are symptoms of a wider issue; that Northern Ireland and its institutions are stuck in a bind which allows Sinn Fein to do what it wants.
This view of Sinn Fein impunity is one which is increasingly taking hold in a swathe of unionist and loyalist thought. Their analysis is that the post-1998 settlement has been one of endless concessions to nationalism with no similar gains for unionism, all while the PSNI continues to stand by a 2015 assessment of a close, ongoing relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein.
The leadership of political unionism – the DUP and UUP – is increasingly being viewed by loyalists as part of the problem. For all their performative criticism of Sinn Fein – as evidenced by lots of worthy speeches demanding resignations during a debate to discuss the Storey affair at Stormont last week – they continue to remain in government with them.
And if this wasn't difficult enough, the Northern Ireland Protocol adds to the burning resentment. The trauma the sea border has caused for unionists and loyalists cannot be understated. The DUP – for their botched attempts to prevent its introduction, and at a ministerial level at Stormont their gradual implementation of some of its measures – are now being regarded with a deeply hostile eye by elements of its natural base. The government and politicians in Dublin also have some responsibility for scaring the unionist horses; increasingly verbose rhetoric around reunification allied to pushing the concept of a sea border have played their part in poisoning the well.
These disgruntled elements are now questioning the value of the process altogether. They are beginning to ask what sort of process is it that allows legislators to fragrantly disregard the regulations they drafted so they can engage in a dreary, communal show of strength while plenty of other grieving families adhered to those regulations? What sort of process allows such a culture of impunity to develop that the police service is either too cowed or too pliant to take a firmer line against rule breakers? Is it worth supporting a political elite which appears to be presiding over a pattern of losses and reversals? Already, in a worrying development, the Combined Loyalist Military Command representing the alphabet soup of loyalist paramilitaries have pulled their support for the Belfast Agreement.
The riots and marches of recent days are the predictable response of a particular section of society which feels that it has no other solution to hand. That young people in the areas where the rioting has taken place are willing to listen to the siren calls of groups like the South East Antrim UDA and take to the streets is an unfortunate illustration of the dwam which has befallen their community.
Yet still, bar the odd tweet from the Secretary of State, the government in Westminster has said nothing of substance about recent events. Though not unexpected given its track record on Northern Ireland, it is an increasingly untenable position. Alongside their relevant partners, there needs to be a new approach which addresses unionist concerns and halts this slide.
Over recent years, we have heard plenty of nationalist politicians calling for the Belfast Agreement to be upheld so their community’s interests are protected. The Agreement speaks of 'parity of esteem and mutual respect'; in that spirit, surely it is now time to start listening to unionist and loyalist concerns?