Loyalists in Northern Ireland are fuming over Brexit

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3 minutes
Loyalists in Northern Ireland are fuming over Brexit

Molotov cocktails, bricks and bottles have met barricades and water cannons in recent weeks as cities in Northern Ireland faced some of their worst rioting in years. Mobs, mostly composed of teenagers from both republican neighborhoods, have clashed with police who struggled to keep both sides apart at a peace line in Belfast.

The anger in Northern Ireland has many sources; Loyalists, who want to remain part of the UK, want to know why, in a time of COVID restrictions, authorities pursued no prosecutions after crowds defied the lockdown rules to gather for the recent funeral of a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army. A police crackdown on defiant gangs in loyal neighbourhoods has also pushed criminal young people into the streets. But beneath all this is the growing fear among loyalists that Brexit will increase the likelihood of Northern Ireland leaving the U.K. to reunify with the Irish Republic, a member of the E.U.

The controversy of the moment centers on the question of borders. As part of the Brexit negotiations with the E.U. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to avoid reimposition of the land border that separates Northern Ireland and, therefore, the E.U. Instead, the two sides agreed on the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which establishes a trade boundary in the Irish Sea. There is still haggling to be done over the movement of food, animals and plants across this boundary to ensure that products from the UK meet E.U.

There are also questions of legal, regulatory and health standards ranging from the future of steel and aluminum tariffs to the movement of pets across the border. The E.U. had argued that an alignment of standards on the manufacture of many products would mean fewer and faster border checks, but Johnson's government is reluctant to make commitments that make it harder for the U.K. to sign future trade deals with other countries. All this leaves loyalists in Northern Ireland feeling forced to the European side and fearful of a unified Ireland, while enduring product shortages as new customs processes slow the movement of goods. This surge of anger comes as the governing party prepares for a serious electoral challenge next year and is loyal to the Democratic Unionist Party.

To fend off criticism that the DUP, supporters of Brexit, is responsible for Northern Ireland's current situation, its leaders have demanded that the protocol be completely scrapped. If that's not enough to blunt criticism of the party, a fragmentation of its voting bloc could leave the Northern Ireland Assembly in the hands of nationalists led by a Sinn Fein First Minister. That's a serious scenario for loyalists and a nightmare challenge to the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace 23 years ago. How will Johnson respond to that question? Many people in the UK have moved in recent months in favor of Brexit, easing pressure on him for bold action, and Britain's successful vaccine rollout should continue that trend.

But Johnson ca n't ignore Northern Ireland's troubles, because they could become worse. A close and independent review of the violence will require cooperation between loyalist and republican leaders, the British and Irish governments and the United Kingdom and E.U. Negotiators charged with finding a way to limit the flow of trade in Ireland to reduce the risk to India.

Do n't expect quick progress; and there is no border fix that can ease tensions between those who fear a united Ireland and those who hope for it. This appears in the April 26th, 2021 issue of TIME.

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