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The ghosts of Northern Ireland’s problems are back. What happens?



Adding to the world’s sectarian hotspots, the British territory of Northern Ireland has roared back to the news, its relative calm punctuated by violent uprisings among groups that had made peace 23 years ago.

The causes of the collapse are intertwined with Britain’s exit from the European Union and the stress of the Covid – 19 pandemic. But they have demonstrated the flammable strength of the old feuds between a largely Catholic side that wants the territory to be part of Ireland and a mostly Protestant side that wants to remain part of Britain.

For more than a week, protests have fallen into chaos in the streets of Belfast, the capital and some other parts of Northern Ireland, leaving many police officers wounded. Insurgents as young as 13 have dropped petrol bombs on police and set buses on fire. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Micheal Martin, have both expressed deep concern.

“Boris Johnson is struggling with a problem that is too close to home for comfort: the worst violence on the streets of Northern Ireland in many years,” said Mujtaba Rahman, CEO of Europe for Eurasia Group, a political risk consultant, in an email to clients. Sir. Rahman said the underlying causes were unlikely to be resolved quickly. “

Here’s a look at Northern Ireland and the problems behind its violent turnaround.

Northern Ireland is an area of ​​5,400 square kilometers with approximately two million people under British sovereignty in the north east of the island of Ireland, bordering the south and west of the Republic of Ireland and the east of the Irish Sea separating it from the rest of the UK.

Ireland became self-governing almost 100 years ago after centuries of British rule. But the treaty, which established autonomy for most of the island, after years of fierce fighting in the wake of World War I, also included an opt-out of the area with the largest concentration of Protestants, whose leaders strongly opposed the prospect of becoming part of a Catholic majority state. This northern area remained part of Britain with a police force and a local government dominated for decades by Protestants.

The partition of Ireland became the source of one of the most violent and persistent sectarian conflicts of the 20th century, with Catholics and groups opposing British rule, including the Irish Republican Army, against Protestants and pro-British forces, including loyalist militant groups. . Belfast, a one-time shipbuilding epicenter and birthplace of the Titanic, became one of the “four Bs” – joining Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia in the pantheon of the world’s most dangerous places. About 3,600 people died in decades of strife in Northern Ireland known as the “problems.”

An agreement known as the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement or simply the agreement, was reached on 10 April 1998 by the British Government, the Irish Government and the political parties of Northern Ireland. It set up a governing body for the territory designed to ensure the sharing of power between Protestants and Catholics and bodies to facilitate co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It obliged former opponents to disarm and resolve their disputes peacefully. It also allowed residents of Northern Ireland to obtain Irish citizenship or dual Irish-British citizenship.

Years of relative peace followed. Once considered a no-go area for tourists, Northern Ireland was a draw. Its appeal was further enhanced by the creators of “Game of Thrones,” the HBO series that used its stunning and diverse landscapes as their stage. The show’s debut in April 2011 put “Northern Ireland on the map”, said The Derry Journal, a newspaper in Northern Ireland’s second largest city.

Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, known as Brexit, disrupted the political balance in Northern Ireland and threatened the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

Ireland remains an EU member state, and Brexit raised the prospect of new controls at its previously unlimited border with Northern Ireland, hindering the free flow of people and goods and angering those who wanted to see the island united.

But solutions to keep this border open have created new problems in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, disrupting supplies to the area’s shops and disrupting those in Northern Ireland who see themselves as British. Anger in pro-British Protestant areas has swelled and contributed to recent outbreaks of violence and has led to fears of retaliation from Catholic communities.

An additional source of excitement was a recent police decision not to prosecute crowds of mourners who gathered at a funeral last June for Bobby Storey, an Irish Republican army chief, despite a ban on mass gatherings due to the pandemic. Among the mourners were leaders of the Sein Fein, a political party linked to the IRA that has become the leading party among Northern Ireland Catholics.

While there is no expectation that violence will escalate to levels seen in the years of The Troubles, when British forces were deployed to Northern Ireland, leaders on all sides fear the start of a revenge cycle.

The situation in Northern Ireland has now become a particularly sensitive issue for Mr. Johnson’s government. He does not want to lose the support of Protestants in Northern Ireland who say they feel betrayed and deprived of their rights. And any deepening of the rift between Northern Ireland and Ireland could galvanize support for Irish unification, as some polls suggest has already increased since Brexit.

So far, political leaders from all sides stress the need to respect the 1998 Belfast Agreement and remind the people of Northern Ireland how it transformed their lives. Sir. Martin, Ireland’s Prime Minister, put it this way in remarks on Saturday, the anniversary of the agreement: “We owe it to the generational generation and indeed future generations not to return to the dark place of sectarian murder and political disagreement. ”


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