Brexit is changing Northern Ireland’s direction – but it isn’t heading “back to the Troubles”

Despite the flare up of violence, Brexit has done more to put Irish unity on the agenda than ever before.

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What started as anti-social behaviour in Northern Ireland last week took a sinister turn, when dissident republicans exploited tensions around the annual Twelfth of July unionist festivities to try to kill police officers. 

After six consecutive nights of violence in Derry, which the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) blamed on the New IRA, chief constable George Hamilton warned it was only a matter of time before a police officer or a child was killed or seriously injured.

Meanwhile, loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitaries were orchestrating street violence in east Belfast over the removal of two unsafe bonfires marking the 328th anniversary of King William III's 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne over Catholic King James. 

The result of this combination of events? Northern Ireland making headlines for all the wrong reasons, again. 

For the vast majority of people, this was embarrassing, frustrating and depressing. The relatively small numbers engaged in violence are not representative of the whole community, be they Irish nationalists, British unionists, or neither. 

In Derry, there was widespread revulsion among people of all backgrounds at the attacks on the small unionist population living in the Fountain area of the predominantly nationalist city, as well as the rioting in the Bogside, the automatic gunfire directed at police officers, and the scores of petrol bombs and two improvised explosive devices that were thrown.

The violence seems to have been fuelled by a range of factors, from good weather and alcohol, to social deprivation and not feeling the benefits of the peace dividend. Then opponents to the peace process exploited it to their ends. 

So far, 13 adults and children have been arrested. Nine have been charged, with further arrests on the cards as a team of detectives continues its investigation.

In response, a “not in our name” community rally took place on Friday in Derry, led by Bishop Donal McKeown.

After the west Belfast homes of former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and party activist Bobby Storey were attacked with industrial firework-type explosive devices on Friday night, several hundred more attended a similar rally on Monday.

Sinn Féin's president, Mary Lou McDonald, told the rally that the dissident republicans suspected of being responsible for the attacks on Adams and Storey were “enemies of the people” and “enemies of peace”.

The violence in Belfast and Derry, while disturbing, is not a sign of a "return to the Troubles", an eye-roll inducing suggestion oft-trotted out by the not particularly well informed. There is always potential for seasonal violence in July and thankfully this year it seems to be over. 

It has garnered increased attention from outside our tiny part of the world, however, as it has taken place in the context of the crisis-ridden Brexit. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU (56 per cent Remain to 44 per cent Leave). 

If this was not destabilising enough, since January 2017 there has been no devolved government in Stormont, which has created a vacuum of leadership. Northern Ireland is currently being governed by unelected civil servants. There are no ministers in place to make decisions and the list of problems this has created for public services and more is growing by the day. 

Plot spoiler: there is little prospect of Stormont returning any time soon, given the lack of trust between the two largest parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin. Complicating matters further is the DUP's confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May's government at Westminster.

Theresa May is to visit Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday to talk to Border business owners and young people. She will also speak to the parties about Stormont but there is a growing sense we will not be getting government restored until, at least, after Brexit. 

Next week, the British and Irish governments are to hold a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) – a consultative forum agreed as part of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in 1998 – to discuss matters of mutual interest between the Republic of Ireland and the UK.

The DUP has dismissed the BIIGC as a “talking shop” with remit for non-devolved matters only. But Sinn Féin want the two governments, in the absence of political institutions, to map out a way to restore Stormont and address rights-based issues such as abortion access and matters at the heart of the political impasse, such as civil marriage for the LGBT community, and language and legacy inquest rights.

Meanwhile, the chief constable has asked for additional funds to recruit up to 400 additional officers for operations along the border after Brexit, warning that a hard Brexit Irish border would be seen as “fair game” for attacks by dissident republicans.

Some Brexiteers seem intent on ignoring what Northern Ireland's most senior police officer is saying when they dismiss others with the same analysis. Labour MP Kate Hoey has called claims about violence returning “blackmail”. The pro-Brexit DUP leader, Arlene Foster, said she objected “in the strongest possible terms to people who have limited experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in this negotiating process”.

Ironically, Brexit, along with the DUP's backing of it, has done more to put Irish unity on the agenda than ever before.

At present the DUP is Northern Ireland's largest party, and for now has Westminster influence, but at the last Assembly election unionism lost its majority for the first time in the history of the state, something Arlene Foster described as a “wake up call”. 

At the Westminster election, Irish nationalists threw their weight behind Sinn Féin, whose electoral growth continues as the passage of time makes more people comfortable with voting for it. Their electoral success is often invisible when viewed from Westminster, however, because the party has a century-old position of not taking its seats. 

The demographics of Northern Ireland are changing, along with a noticeably softer attitude to Irish unity among the soft nationalists, unionists, and centre ground who would likely decide the outcome of any possible Border poll (Irish unity referendum). This may be part due to Brexit. Recent polls have indicated an increase of support for Irish unity, there has been a surge in applications for Irish passports, and high-profile unionists such as Professor Jim Dornan (the father of actor Jamie Dornan) have spoken publicly about being open to the idea of a New Ireland.

The future of Northern Ireland's union with Britain is not as certain as it once seemed. 

For the avoidance of doubt, the majority of people in Northern Ireland are clear, as they always have been, about their support for peace, as imperfect as it can sometimes seem.

They have had enough upheaval and are rightly anxious about what Brexit could mean for their futures. They want happy, safe, secure, prosperous lives and the same rights enjoyed by British and Irish citizens in the rest of Ireland and in Britain. They know any change to the constitutional position will be done by democratic means. The violence may make headlines, but ultimately it is futile.

For now the focus is largely on the potential damage those elected are capable of inflicting by undermining the Good Friday Agreement and the interests of Northern Ireland. It would be ironic if a government led by a Conservative-DUP deal was ultimately responsible for destroying the union. 

Amanda Ferguson is a journalist based in Belfast. Follow her @AmandaFBelfast.