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Artillery Row

Violence is power in Northern Ireland

A cynic might think that a degree of loyalist violence in Northern Ireland was all part of the Brexit calculation

About a decade ago a Tory MP with whom I had a passing acquaintance was appointed to a junior role in Northern Ireland.

In a moment of unusual Cameroonian candour, he described his experience of the job. He claimed that the all-consuming fear of everyone in the Northern Ireland Office was that “things will slide backwards on our watch”.

I didn’t think much of it and the comment — spoken as if by a Guards officer discussing a six-month tour in rural Tyrone — which may well have been a throwaway one. However, I have found myself reflecting on it this week as another generation of kids took to the streets to cause havoc in Northern Ireland.

The issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol has proved to be a slow burning one. It has created an undercurrent of mistrust, but the pandemic ensured that the response was largely political.

The spark for the current violence came when the Public Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute anyone involved in the UK’s largest and most gratuitously two-fingered Covid regulations breach.

As on the mainland, it is fashionable to find a ‘systemic’ reason for everything

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill had determined that funerals for normal people were off. While countless bereaved families last saw their relative’s coffin from the side of a road as it vanished into the sprawling Roselawn cemetery, O’Neill got to walk behind the coffin of a terrorist godfather while thousands of people lined the streets. The fact that the police and Belfast City Council colluded in the show of strength only rubbed salt into the wound.

It’s hard as a run-of-the-mill unionist not to feel a little cast adrift. When you add poverty and genuine abandonment into the mix, it becomes heady. Protestant boys on free school meals produce unbelievably low levels of educational attainment. Male unemployment in inner-city areas is twice that of females. Suicide rates are notoriously high. The pandemic will only have exacerbated these trends.

The new generation of the irritating millennial politician has rushed to point fingers. As on the mainland, it is fashionable to find a “systemic” reason for everything. So people wonder about unionist attitudes. They ponder the failure of unionist leaders, who have strongly condemned the violence. Even radio journalist Stephen Nolan has been blamed.

We can’t pretend to live in a country where power isn’t achieved through violence, so we just try to forget

All of this serves to deprive rioters of their responsibility for the vandalism and attacks on police officers. But it also ignores the nature of Northern Ireland society since 1998. Regardless of one’s overall view of the Belfast Agreement, nobody can argue that it didn’t involve a compromise with the moral norms of democratic societies. Nobody — not even the “progressive” centre — ever seeks to defend that aspect of it. Nobody could.

We can’t pretend to live in a country where power isn’t achieved through violence, so we just try to forget. We talk up the new Northern Ireland instead. There are decent jobs and good schools. Crime is comparatively low. We continuously score high in all sorts of wellbeing studies.

Averages can be misleading though. These benefits have not been felt equally. There has been no peace dividend for some communities. There is just an intrinsically violent elite which now breaks the rules it sets for others and a perfidious British government which accommodates them.

There has been an increased focus on protest during the pandemic. Nobody in their right mind will agree with the methods employed by the rioters. However, if those who have associated themselves with various causes over the past year can’t sympathise with some of the least well-off and most let-down communities in their own country, one would have to question their motives.

Boris clearly hoped the issue would vanish. He’s now said he’s “deeply concerned”. A cynic might think that a degree of loyalist violence was all part of the Brexit calculation. Forced to choose between it and the threat of republican violence in the event of a so-called hard border, they chose the option that would involve less “sliding backwards”.

In doing so they provided more evidence that violence pays. We can now see where that has led us.

Neil Wilson works in global corporate affairs from his home in Belfast. 

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