Former Northern Ireland officials have urged UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to act immediately in Northern Ireland as the country may fall. The letter signed by former ministers from different political parties, including four Northern Irish Secretaries of State, says recent unrest on the streets of Belfast reflects the government's failure to sustain positive political momentum.
The signatories called on Boris Johnson to address the damage done by Brexit to peace in Northern Ireland.
"The lesson of the past 50 years or more in Northern Ireland is that if there is no forward movement things do not stand still: they fall over. It is the responsibility of the UK government to ensure that does not happen because there is nothing more dangerous than a political vacuum", reads the letter.
According to former officials, there is a strong sense among loyalists and unionists that no one is listening to them and that the government has not been honest with them "about the consequences of Brexit".
Only continuous engagement with local communities will defuse tensions over the Irish border, the ministers said.
"The most immediate step is therefore for the government, at the highest level, to be seen to take an interest", the signatories wrote urging the government to regain the initiative and restore "badly" damaged trust with the authorities.
What Happened in Northern Ireland?
At the end of March, the country saw more than 10 days of unrest, which saw demonstrators attacking police officers with petrol bombs, fireworks, and bricks. Several vehicles were burned, including a bus. The unrest began in loyalist areas where criminal gangs linked to loyalist paramilitaries have influence.
So far, the authorities and law enforcement have not provided a definitive answer as to the cause of the unrest, but reports say several factors led to the situation, with anger over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), being the most crucial.
The NIP is part of the Brexit deal that the European Union and the United Kingdom agreed to after the latter decided to leave the bloc. Under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and the bloc conducts checks on goods on the border between the UK (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland.
This was done to prevent hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a key provision of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence dubbed the Troubles.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, however, resulted in disruption of food supplies and other deliveries due to checks at ports. This angered loyalists, who claimed that the agreement not only damages trade, but also threatens Northern Ireland's membership in the United Kingdom. In February, First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster and other MPs launched a legal challenge against the NIP.
How Has Boris Johnson's Government Responded
Prime Minister Johnson recently said that authorities are holding talks with Brussels on ways to cut checks at ports in Northern Ireland. Speaking in Belfast, the PM said that the government is now "sandpapering" the NIP into shape. He said that if it turns out that the provision of the Brexit deal is not working in the interests of Britain he will invoke Article 16. The latter allows both Brussels and London to temporarily suspend the NIP if it causes "economic, societal, or environmental difficulties".
It appears that the prime minister's statements have so far failed to assuage local communities. A recent poll commissioned by Queen's University in Belfast revealed that 86 percent of respondents distrust or distrust a lot the UK government, while only 5 percent have trust in the UK authorities.
The poll also revealed that 71 percent of respondents don't believe that their views will be heard and addressed.