Why the riots in Northern Ireland are about more than just Brexit

The cause of these riots is complex and nuanced – but little attention is being paid in Westminster.

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Serious and sustained rioting has taken place in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland over the Easter weekend, with petrol bombs, bricks, fireworks and bottles thrown at police, cars set alight, and 32 officers injured in incidents in Derry, Belfast, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. 

What has caused these riots? The very answer to that question is politically fraught. The recent scenes are a manifestation of building anger and alienation among unionists at the Irish Sea border arrangements for Northern Ireland, in place since 1 January when the Brexit transition period ended. Checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom are an affront to unionists’ sense of identity and to the perceived integrity of the union, made worse by the palpable disruption to trade and the expected longer-term economic consequences of the border arrangements. 

The riots also took place in the immediate aftermath of a controversial decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin politicians, including the deputy first minister, Michelle O'Neill, for an alleged breach of coronavirus regulations at the funeral of the senior republican Bobby Storey in June. 

But that isn't the full picture. Most of the rioters are young (those arrested in South Belfast on 3 April were aged between 13 and 25) and are thought to be demonstrating at the alleged encouragement of local paramilitary leaders. These leaders' suspected reasons for mounting a resistance may be less to do with political objections to the Irish Sea border or the handling of the Storey funeral, and more to do with recent police crackdowns on criminal activity. 

Politicians in Northern Ireland are engaged in a bitter row over these riots, with everyone condemning the violence but some lending more weight to the unionist grievances behind them than others. While the DUP has urged those “angry or frustrated” at the Irish Sea border and the Storey funeral to demonstrate their frustrations through political engagement rather than violence, other parties have accused unionist leaders, and the DUP in particular, of further stoking tensions.

But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It isn’t that difficult, when observing post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Irish politics, to accept the nuance that the grievances being cited are entirely legitimate and, simultaneously, that violence is not justified and that paramilitary groups from either tribe are not so much idealised fighters for political principles as criminal gangs draped in flags.

These were the subtleties we anticipated and discussed at length during the Brexit negotiations, but in reverse: a hard land border on the island of Ireland would have caused untold economic disruption and been an affront to the identities and way of life of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, while any resultant republican violence would not have been justified and would in many cases have been incited by bad-faith criminal organisations.  

It is frustrating that the political debate in Westminster was so directed towards hypothetical violence and its prevention in Northern Ireland during the Brexit negotiations, while so little is directed towards the real and ongoing violence following Brexit. We got Brexit “done”, which means the Westminster conversation about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland is largely “done” too. But its complex and nuanced aftermath is only just beginning.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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