Experts have told Sputnik that the recent events may have been sparked by the mounting dissatisfaction with the UK-EU Brexit settlement in some communities and the rhetoric of political leaders.
For more than a week, members of the unionist community, those who wish for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, hurled stones, fireworks, and petrol bombs at police officers during sporadic clashes. One incident on 7 April saw youths hijack a bus and set it alight in Belfast.
The UK government's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, told the House of Commons this past Wednesday that 88 police officers were injured in the clashes, adding that 18 people had been arrested.
"The violence witnessed last week is totally unacceptable. Attacks on police officers are utterly reprehensible. Those engaged in this destruction and disorder do not represent the people of Northern Ireland", Lewis told parliament.
Despite the condemnation, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland reportedly rejected calls this week for a joint UK-Republic of Ireland summit to discuss the recent violence.
Several factors are believed to have caused the recent unrest within the unionist community. Some commentators have pointed to the Public Prosecution Service's (PPS) decision not to charge any republican representatives for violating COVID-19 social distancing regulations by attending the June 2020 funeral of Bobby Storey, a senior Irish Republican Army (IRA) figure.
The implementation of the future partnership agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which came into force at the start of the year and concluded the Brexit process, has also left unionist communities dissatisfied for, in effect, creating a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Counting Cost of Brexit
Resolving the issue of the border on the island of Ireland was one of the most contentious topics of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU.
Negotiators in London and Brussels sought an agreement that would maintain the integrity of the bloc's single market while also ensuring the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal signed in 1998 that brought an end to most of the intercommunal violence seen in Northern Ireland over the preceding three decades.
The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol was eventually agreed upon by the UK and the EU to ensure that there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland in the post-Brexit era.
Despite this, unionists have expressed dissatisfaction with the trade deal rules stipulating that animal and food products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK must undergo checks upon arrival to ensure compliance with EU regulations. Since the agreement came into force, some supermarkets in Northern Ireland have suffered food shortages.
"The PPS decision not to prosecute [republicans for attending Bobby Storey's funeral] is at best a spark – but the fundamental cause of the problem is the Irish Sea Border between Britain and the EU that [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson negotiated and that came into place on 1 January of this year", John McGarry, a professor of comparative politics at Queen's University in Toronto, Canada, told Sputnik.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DNP), which garnered 30.6 percent of the Northern Irish popular vote in the UK's 2019 general election, consistently campaigned for a so-called "hard Brexit" in unison with Conservative Party backbenchers.
However, their calls were not heeded by the government, which decided on a "soft exit" for Northern Ireland, Brendan O'Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, told Sputnik.
"When Johnson became leader of the Tories he promised he had an 'oven-ready' Brexit. The element that was oven-ready was the DUP's goose. Johnson betrayed the DUP: in order to close a withdrawal agreement with the EU he accepted that Northern Ireland, to preserve the Good Friday Agreement 'in all its parts', would remain in the EU's Single Market for goods, and agriculture, and that de facto the EU Customs Union would be administered at ports and airports, effectively making the Irish Sea the economic border between Great Britain and the EU", O'Leary said.
The University of Pennsylvania academic said that unionists' dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol was one of four potential causes for the unrest, the others being the Police Service of Northern Ireland's (PSNI) crackdown on drug dealers in South and East Antrim, pandemic fatigue, and the political atmosphere created by the DUP.
A February opinion poll appeared to show the DUP trailing Sinn Fein by five percentage points, and O'Leary said that this prompted Arlene Foster, the leader of the unionist party, to move to the "political right" and call for scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol.
"Weeks earlier Arlene Foster had said the Protocol was now international law, and that there could be advantages for Northern Ireland. Shortly after she was calling for the scrapping of the Protocol and the resignation of the Chief Constable. These moves greenlighted the loyalist militia. I read these reactions as those of a panicked leader, and of a party whose standing may be crumbling. Her irresponsibility enabled the always-ready loyalist riot machines to go into action", O'Leary remarked.
This sentiment was shared by John McGarry of Queen's University, who accused the DUP of playing "the politics of polarisation" after they mishandled the Brexit process.
"Because the DUP's poll numbers have been declining as a result of the way they mishandled matters, it has now decided to heat up the rhetoric and play the politics of polarisation to get its numbers back up – this has helped produce the riots", McGarry said.
Northern Ireland Protocol Here to Stay
In light of the recent unrest, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic held talks with David Frost, the UK's Brexit minister, this past Thursday.
During the talks, Sefcovic expressed the European Union's "unwavering commitment" to the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the bloc's wish to maintain its PEACE+ funding programme that aims to support peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
The European Union has consistently said that the Northern Ireland Protocol is the only way to maintain both the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of its single market, and University of Pennsylvania academic Brendan O'Leary stated that neither the EU nor the United States was likely to withdraw from the legislation.
"The Protocol is not going to be abandoned by the EU - or the US administration, which supports it. Its implementation may be more sensitively implemented if the UK cooperates with the EU in good faith. Part of the problem is that the Johnson administration's desire to leave fast after the prolonged negotiations left no room for proper preparation. If the UK were fully to resile from the Protocol it would trigger a full trade war between the UK and the EU, and I doubt whether Her Majesty's government is that foolish", O'Leary stated.
The University of Pennsylvania professor added that it was in the interests of all parties – the UK, Republic of Ireland, and the European Union – to "achieve a functioning protocol", adding that the recent unrest has "hardly acted as an advertisement" for attracting new foreign investment to Northern Ireland.
Fears of Return to Sectarian Violence as Yet Unfounded
The recent unrest in Belfast largely saw unionist youths stage running battles with law enforcement officers. The raised tensions did not lead to clashes between republican and unionist communities, but John McGarry said that there was a risk of this happening given that the disturbances took place in West Belfast's so-called interface areas, where unionist and republican residential regions border one another.
"Yes, there is a risk. These riots are taking place at 'interface' areas, i.e. neighbourhoods where the two communities live close to each other. The break out of inter-community violence would be a seriously negative development", McGarry remarked.
University of Pennsylvania academic Brendan O'Leary said that law enforcement officers and community workers prevented the outbreak of widespread sectarian clashes, adding that the relative calm seen over recent days may be the result of unionist communities splintering following the unrest.
"The unionist community usually splits when its militants are seen to be the source of disorder", he said, adding that these communities are being required to "face the reality" that they are "no longer able to dictate outcomes to London governments" as they once were.
Political leaders in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have maintained that they are committed to ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland, although ministers face serious challenges in ensuring that the free trade agreement signed between London and Brussels is palatable to the unionist communities.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is set to have its opportunity to vote on the continued application of the Northern Ireland Protocol in late 2024, at the end of the so-called initial period.
Between now and then, the contentious legislation may continue to fuel tensions in Northern Ireland and stoke divisions between Belfast and London.