Couple of weeks ago, on the 15th of April, Brexit minister David Frost and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič met in Brussels to discuss the agitated situation in Northern Ireland. The context of these discussions was rising legal threats and the escalating protests in multiple cities across Northern Ireland (Guardian, 2021).
From the end of March onwards, the riots have aggravated an already tense situation. The spark that lit the fuse can be dated back to a legal decision of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It was decided not to prosecute a member of the Irish republican party, Sinn Fein, for attending the funeral of a former IRA member last June amid social distancing restrictions.
There are, however, more underlying tensions closely linked to Brexit. Leaving the EU was not supported by the majority of the Northern Irish population. Besides, the legal procedures of the Northern Ireland protocol (which determine the phasing out of the Union for the region of Northern Ireland) are also contested (Politico 2021). Brexit has left the EU and UK officials with the challenge to determine Northern Ireland's place within the European market. It resulted in the compromise that the country would remain a partial member of the Single Market, which still allows for trade between NI and the Republic of Ireland. This solution also prescribes border custom checks and effectively a ‘sea border’ between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Some loyalists argued that such a decision undermines Northern Ireland's role in the UK (Politico, 2021).
Fast forward a month into the protests, violence seems to be escalating, and the tensions have become somewhat reminiscent of the riots that ensued at the end of the 1960s, which preceded the “Troubles”. Across the country, protesters have been throwing bricks and petrol bombs; in Belfast, a bus was set on fire, and dozens of police officers have been injured (Euronews, 2021). These events have sparked reactions from leaders of both the Irish and British governments with calls for peace, and even the US White House intervened by issuing a statement on behalf of President Joe Biden with a similar tenor.
Amid this tense situation, the talks between the representatives of the UK and the EU seem to bring some hope. Both sides described the conversation in favourable terms, such as ‘constructive’ and a ‘solution-driven atmosphere’. Šefčovič highlighted the importance of collaboration in future decisions and asked the UK to come back with a more straightforward pathway to follow the Northern Ireland Protocol. Even though the support of this protocol is divided, the EU believes that it is the best way to go forward and to finalise the process of Brexit in Northern Ireland.
Written by Leandra Porcher, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.