What’s behind the riots in the North of Ireland?

After this month’s riots in the North of Ireland, Mark F puts recent events into the context of continued sectarian division and state repression – arguing Brexit is only one factor in what he calls ongoing “small ‘t’ troubles”.

View from the city walls as Loyalists prepare a bonfire in the Fountain estate in Derry
Photo: Seán Ó Domhnaill

What is notable about the recent rioting in the North of Ireland is not that it has occurred, but that it has gained such significant attention from the media in Britain. In the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement, recurrent bouts of rioting have been one of the unhappy legacies of the Troubles in both working class loyalist and republican areas. Yet it has not been until recently that these small ‘t’ troubles have garnered such attention from those outside the 6 counties.

In this time the fundamentals of Northern Irish politics and society have not changed, and hence its problems are reinforced and recurring. That the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) contributed to a lasting era of relative peace is undoubted, but the price has been the unhappy effect of institutionalising sectarian division within the constitution of the state. Power sharing, whereby the executive branch of the Stormont government must be split between nationalist and unionist parties, has reified in parliamentary form the perception that politics is a zero-sum game of ‘them’ versus ‘us’. The logic has worked itself out in an often petty, dysfunctional form of governance that, following the ‘cash for ash’ scandal and unionist intransigence over a planned Irish Language Act, finally led to no government at all for 3 years, between January 2017 to January 2020. Economic life outside of Stormont has been just as stagnant, with little of the promised ‘peace dividend’ in evidence to improve conditions for the working class. All in all, for much of society in the North of Ireland, things have only grown by turns more wearied and frustrated as the years have passed.

Britain, having been served its own share of political doldrums, has turned its eye to one of the remaining shards of its imperial dominions as a result. Certainly for liberal, EU-philic observers, they see in the riots only an object lesson in the evils of Brexit. This view ironically overlooks the pro-Brexit views of loyalists, and abstracts their undoubted anger at a notional border in the Irish Sea (limited in reality to certain goods transported between NI and Britain) from the more fundamental, Irish-specific issues at work. It even overlooks the most immediate event that provided the context for the recent rioting. This was the decision by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) at the end of March not to recommend any prosecutions for breaches of Covid-19 regulations for any of those, including senior members of Sinn Fein, who attended the June 2020 funeral of Bobby Storey, head of IRA intelligence in the 1990s. (The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) did however issue fines to those attending contemporaneous Black Lives Matter protests, not that loyalists tend to be exercised over this sort of inequity). The decision – along with the manner in which the funeral was seen to have been given the lightest of touches in terms of policing – was upheld as evidence for loyalists and mainstream unionist politicians, supporting a narrative that Catholics are now the dominant, favoured community within the structures of Northern Irish society.

While undoubtedly this false narrative is used in a cynical, instrumentalising way by political actors, it is also underpinned by the relative decline of working class Protestants in recent decades, despite working class Catholics still faring worse statistically in socio-economic terms. The effect can in part be explained using the metaphor of the observer who is sinking in the mud: to this observer, someone viewed below him who is stationary appears to be rising. The formal institutional equalities guaranteed by the GFA, and previous legislation also aiming at this end, have not helped matters. Without a sectarian one-party state to enforce the privileges of a unionist order (particularly in ensuring working class Protestants are first in line for jobs and housing), political unionism has lost much of its mojo.

With unionism in its parliamentary form unable to provide material benefits to the Protestant working class, loyalist gangs will continue to provide an outlet for sections within it. Loyalists paramilitaries are widely believed to be the organisational force behind the rioters. At the end of March, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) (an umbrella group representing the views of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Red Hand Commando) announced their withdrawal of support for the GFA, directly in response to the PPS’s announcement regarding the Bobby Storey funeral. Quickly thereafter, calls for Protestant youth to ‘protect’ and ‘defend’ their community were said to have appeared via mass text messaging and on social media, leading to riots first in the Waterside area of Derry, followed in the days after by further sustained rioting in Belfast, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballymena. The rioting in Belfast quickly spread from loyalist Sandy Row to other areas of the city with interfaces between nationalist and unionist areas, causing Catholic youth to respond in kind to the attacks.

Any organisation and encouragement was later disclaimed by the LCC. Curiously, the PSNI seemed to have accepted this account in a volte face, stating ‘It’s our overall assessment that the violence that has taken place over the last few nights is not orchestrated by a group, in the name of that group’. Previously they had agreed with the assessment from journalists on the ground that, because the number of rioting youth were relatively few, encouragement for such a sustained campaign – well-supplied with petrol bombs – must have had older heads at work in the background.  

A remarked feature of the riots was the PSNI’s deployment of water cannons. Readers with long memories might be able to stretch theirs back to a time when Boris Johnson’s domain for wasting public funds was limited to London during his mayoralty. He had purchased a number of water cannons at a cost of over £300,000 when their use was (and is) in fact, illegal in Britain. This is not so for the North of Ireland, where they have made their reappearance after a six-year hiatus. Being perfectly legal, the use of water cannons is a symbol of difference between Britain and the North of Ireland. Famously, Margaret Thatcher once claimed that Northern Ireland was as British as her constituency of Finchley. However, to my knowledge, the removal of habeas corpus has not been an overriding concern to the average Finchley resident within its recent history. In times past, unionists and loyalists could square the circle by arguing such differences were necessary to defeat an intransigent, violent enemy. However, the enemy is now safely mollified and besuited, but the armoured cars and armed cops remain. 

Twenty three years ago the Good Friday Agreement bought relative peace at the cost of institutionalising sectarianism. From the outset, the basis of the Good Friday Agreement was that violence in the North of Ireland was the result of innate cultural and political sectarian divisions between Protestants and Catholics, rather than British occupation. However, history shows that there is nothing inevitable about this division, and the North has seen inspiring examples of anti-sectarian working class solidarity in periods where the stranglehold of British imperialism and elite loyalist and nationalist politics has weakened. A unified working class will find, in the end, it has more to gain than a smaller or greater portion of Ireland.


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