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Could Post-Brexit Row Over Northern Ireland Protocol Trigger Repetition of The Troubles?

© REUTERS / JASON CAIRNDUFFLoyalists protest against the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol at Belfast Harbour Estate, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 3, 2021
Loyalists protest against the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol at Belfast Harbour Estate, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 3, 2021 - Sputnik International, 1920, 10.11.2021
Two recent cases of arson in loyalist communities of Northern Ireland indicate how deep the divisions in the region run over Brexit and the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol - a part of the Britain-EU Withdrawal Agreement - UK academics warn.
Four men hijacked a bus, ordered passengers off and set the vehicle ablaze on 7 November in a pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland, according to the local police authorities. This is the second time this month a bus has been hijacked and burnt in the region - the first being on 1 November in Newtownards, County Down, which was linked by the media to the post-Brexit struggle surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol in question is an annexe to the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by the UK and the EU in October 2019. The document was aimed at avoiding the reconstruction of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which had been removed by the Good Friday Agreement. To that end it was agreed that Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules on product standards to prevent checks along the border. Instead checks were forced on products coming to Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales to adhere to the European bloc's rulebook. This has prompted concerns that a new border has in effect been created in the Irish Sea, separating one part of the UK from the other.

2021 Northern Ireland Riots

The possibility of further violence obviously exists, even if tensions over the protocol are defused by implementation of the EU's proposals, believes Adrian Guelke, Emeritus Professor at the Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict at Queen's University Belfast.

"Loyalist paramilitaries have been recruiting members this year," Guelke stresses.

Protests over the Northern Ireland Protocol erupted earlier this year exacerbated by food shortages and red tape. Riots and disorder shattered Northern Ireland in March with unionists arguing that the protocol is weakening the UK's integrity and pushing Belfast into the arms of the Republic of Ireland. For their part, Irish nationalists insisted that the root of all evil is not the protocol but Brexit in the first place. The unrest evokes memories of The Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict that lasted about 30 years until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was struck on 10 April 1998.
The latest arson incidents are "a ripple not a wave and it is unlikely to develop much beyond that in the short to medium term," believes Dr Donnacha Ó Beacháin, professor of politics at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University.
"Rioters in loyalist neighbourhoods are emboldened by the rhetoric of unionist politicians," Ó Beacháin explains. "Many of the rioters are 'ceasefire babies,' part of a generation which has grown up in relative peace. For loyalists the 'Irish Sea Border,' which comes with the implementation of the Brexit Agreement, symbolises Northern Ireland being separated from the UK."
The professor notes that those opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol include the tiny loyalist Progressive Unionist Party that does not have elected members in the local Assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Boris Johnson himself.
On top of this, "sectarianism is deeply embedded in Northern Ireland and the peace process has thus far only managed and regulated tensions and differences rather than eliminate them completely," the professor believes.
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Boris Johnson's government is seeking a fundamental renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, in September 2021 the European Commission made it clear that the protocol is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement and cannot be reconsidered. In October, the EC got involved in further talks over the accord with the UK but the two have yet to break the impasse.
Both Ó Beacháin and Guelke argue that the unfolding controversy was caused not by the protocol but by Brexit. They cite the fact that during the 2016 referendum Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by 56 percent to 44 percent, whereas the UK, as a whole, opted to leave the European bloc by 52 percent to 48 percent.
"[The Johnson government] needs to recognise that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and as far as practically possible that needs to be respected in the policies that the government adopts," insists Guelke.
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Northern Ireland is Integral Part of UK in First Place

However, British conservatives draw attention to the fact that Northern Ireland was and still is an integral part of the UK with Brexit being a democratic choice made by the majority of Britons. Some conservative observers do not rule out that the economic hurdles stemming from the Northern Ireland Protocol are part of the EU's effort to punish London for its decision to quit the bloc.
Earlier, in October 2021, David George Hamilton Frost, chief negotiator of Task Force Europe, delivered a speech in Lisbon, highlighting that the much discussed protocol should be urgently reconsidered. According to Lord Frost, the accord is not working and "has completely lost consent in one community in Northern Ireland," thus undermining the Good Friday Agreement instead of supporting it.
Moreover, he reckons that the protocol should be amended as it "represents a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied". The British negotiator highlighted that if the two sides fail to come to a compromise, London might trigger Article 16, an option which enables one side to suspend the document.
"It is this government that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK," Frost said. "Northern Ireland is not EU territory. It is our responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and that may include using Article 16 if necessary."
Commenting on Frost's address, Stephen Daisley, a frequent contributor to conservative British weekly magazine, The Spectator, criticised those who assume "that Britain is a recalcitrant child and Brussels an admirably patient grown-up".
"Relationships between states and supranational bodies are not about virtue, but about competing and common interests and how to balance the two," Daisley wrote in his op-ed. "Renegotiating the terms of a protocol or other agreement because it is unsatisfactory isn’t a failure of international relations: it is international relations."
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