Rioting on the streets of Belfast and Derry City in the past week by British loyalists which saw 27 policemen injured followed by subsequent arrests have raised concerns that Northern Ireland might be slipping back to a life of hostilities that originally took over 25 years of sectarian warfare to eradicate. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, a number of events coming down the line could make an already fragile atmosphere even worse.
Recent rioting on the streets of Belfast and Derry City has threatened a delicate and successful peace process that has been carefully evolving for the past 23 years.
When the so-called ‘Good Friday’ Agreement was signed on April 10th 1998 between London and Dublin with Washington looking on, everyone on the island of Ireland prayed that ‘The Troubles’, which claimed over 3,500 lives, were finished.
However, in a bitterly divided society where protestant unionists wish to remain under British rule and catholic nationalists want to unify the island of Ireland since it was divided by London in 1921, tensions have been coming to the surface which threaten to turn back the clock.
A decision last week by the Police Service of Northern Ireland not to prosecute senior members of Sinn Féin for breaching Covid-19 restrictions while attending the funeral of one of their chief strategists Bobby Storey in June 2020, caused uproar in the unionist community with many prominent politicians suggesting special treatment was being applied for appeasement purposes!
As a result, angry protestant youths took to the streets of Belfast and Derry and rioted their anger against the police.
In her Easter message, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster said: “The people are hugely frustrated.
“I appeal to our young community not to get drawn in to disorder which will lead to them having criminal convictions and blighting their own lives,” she said.
Her comments come as anger is growing elsewhere within the unionist community over the Northern Ireland protocol, a part of the British exit from the EU which has seen the establishment of checks at ports in Belfast and Larne on trade goods entering NI from GB.
As unionists see it, the notional ‘border’ or imaginary line down the middle of the Irish Sea psychologically isolates Northern Ireland from GB and is another gentle step towards a united Ireland.
The matter hasn’t been helped by the fact that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rowed back on a prior commitment not to impose such a ‘border’ between GB and NI.
Johnson promised delegates at the annual DUP Conference in November 2018: "If we wanted to do free trade deals, if we wanted to cut tariffs or vary our regulation, then we would have to leave Northern Ireland behind as an economic semi-colony of the EU and we would be damaging the fabric of the union.”
Johnson did the proverbial u-turn on the DUP which, ironically, kept the Conservative Party in Government during Teresa May’s time in 10 Downing st, and his cunning betrayal has enraged British unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland who feel that incrementally, London is off-loading the costly province in to the hands of Dublin, a scenario they vehemently oppose.
To complicate matters moreso, the Loyalist Communities Council which represents protestant terrorist groups such as the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, said its members have now withdrawn support for the 1998 Peace Agreement in protest at the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol by London.
The recent upsurge in rioting may be linked to this move with newspaper reports suggesting that the LCC want to see the collapse of the regional Northern Ireland parliament to ensure that direct rule from London is re-introduced so that unionist issues and concerns in the province receive greater attention while simultaneously reducing Sinn Féin influence.
In the meantime, as Northern Ireland finds itself at yet another political crossroads, a number of milestone events are coming down the line that are likely to enflame tensions moreso.
When the Northern Ireland Assembly elections take place in May 2022, it is 99.99 per cent likely that Sinn Féin will win more seats than the DUP putting Irish nationalists in the dominant position for the first time since 1921.
Added to that, the results of the Northern Ireland census will be published in Summer 2022 with catholics tipped to surpass the number of British protestants for the first time in over 300 years, a move that will speed up the call for an all-Ireland referendum and all that before the outcome of the Scottish Assembly elections increases demands for independence there!
As Sinn Féin MP John Finucane put it recently: “A united Ireland is not a case of if, but when.”
On paper, all the dynamics and trends are working against British unionists in Northern Ireland, suggesting that the recent rioting may be a rehearsal for what is to come.
Ireland: Martin leadership under pressure
The Irish government, like the UK, has this week begun the slow and delicate task of relaxing COVID-19 restrictions while simultaneously increasing the roll-out of vaccines. For the ruling three-party government, the move is something of a political risk. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, failure to reduce the infection rate adequately and the declining popularity of Fianna Fáil, the party headed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin (pictured), could see a change in leadership unless opinion poll graphs start going up instead of down.
On Friday 9 April, the Cabinet of the Irish government held a late night incorporeal meeting, a process whereby a senior civil servant rings Ministers, has a one-to one chat and determines their respective position and vote on a policy matter.
At issue was a decision to add countries like France, Italy, Belgium, Canada and, interestingly, the USA to its expanding list of countries where respective visitors to Ireland must go in to strict quarantine for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.
For many, this severe measure is seen as a last throw of the dice to not only reduce the spread of the virus but to get normal politics back on the political agenda as weary Irish people, metaphorically speaking, ‘tear their hair out’ amidst one of the most severe lockdown programmes in the democratic world.
For Micheál Martin, the coming months could determine if he is to be replaced as leader of his party and accordingly, as Taoiseach.
As one of his parliamentary TDs told The Irish Times last weekend, the jostling for positions is “relentless”, a sign perhaps that his critics within the governing Fianna Fáil Party, a centre ground pro united Ireland party, are lining up to take him out!
Put bluntly, Irish voters are turning their backs on the once unbeatable Fianna Fáil. The Party secured 22.2 per cent of the first preference votes in the General Election of February 2020 but since the Covid pandemic took effect, its popularity has fallen to 11 per cent!
Its decision to enter a three-way coalition Government in June of last year with its erstwhile enemy Fine Gael headed by former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Green Party has not delivered positive results for Micheál Martin.
With COVID being the one item that has dominated the political agenda since March 2020 and Irish people going through a painful third lockdown at Level 5, the highest of all, the government is coming under increasing attack for being seen, amongst other things, to be trailing the UK in the rollout of vaccines.
As one ageing Fianna Fáil TD (member of Parliament) who didn’t wish to be named told this reporter: “Matters are not being helped by the fact that there is a housing crisis with more and more young people struggling to get on the property ladder and the slow nature in tackling the problem is seeing a drift in our young support to left-wing parties.”
The big beneficiary in this drift is fellow republican party but much maligned Sinn Féin. It secured 24.5 per cent of the first preference vote in 2020 and managed to win 37 seats, just one behind Fianna Fáil in Ireland’s Proportional Representation system of elections.
The TD added, “Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin has gone soft on the north [Northern Ireland] while Sinn Fein are constantly calling for a unification referendum. This is what republicans want to hear even if it’s a long way off and we are relatively quiet on the matter.
“COVID has been a disaster for us because 99% of all political activity since last year has been on tackling the spread of the virus and the tragic knock-on effect for businesses and the Irish economy.
“We’ve been struggling to get our message out on the other policy issues we are addressing. The quicker Covid goes away, the better,” he said.
Because of the way the votes fell out of the boxes after last year’s election, Fianna Fáil entered in to government with Fine Gael and the Green Party to keep Sinn Féin out!
The deal created a rotating Taoiseach arrangement whereby Micheál Martin will serve as PM until December 2022 when Leo Varadkar will then succeed him in the run in to the next election.
All this is predicated on Micheál Martin lasting that long. His survival is likely to be based on how the graphs perform in opinion polls in the coming months.
GB exports to Ireland slump as Brexit bites
Despite constant assurances that trade between Britain and the island of Ireland would flow smoothly in the post-Brexit World, the reality is proving to be quite the opposite. GB exports to Ireland are declining, revenues are falling and it’s only March, as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.
They say it was the Greek philosopher Aesop who once said in 260BC: “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”
Three months in to the British exit from the European Union, some doubters in the Conservative Party in London must be wondering at this early stage if political divorce from Brussels was such a good idea after all.
New figures from the Irish Central Statistics Office (CSO) reveal that during the month of January this year, British exports to the Republic of Ireland fell by £856 million or just under €1 billion compared to the same month in 2020.
To put that another way, British exports to southern Ireland fell by 65%. The figure is worse in the area of food and live animals where exports to the Republic fell by 75% or €62 million, a clear sign that the graphs are going downwards!
Whether COVID-19 and lack of consumer demand is to blame is still unclear but one thing is certain, British goods entering the Republic of Ireland are being met with unwelcome customs checks and import controls which are proving to be a major inconvenience for GB exporters and Irish importers.
Already, much anticipated alarm bells are going off with the Irish Road Hauliers Association saying that not only was this to be expected but additional costs are mounting which have the potential to drive some trucking companies out of business.
In a press statement, it said: “Through engagement with transport and logistics companies, we are aware of problems and backlogs in the supply chain, particularly in GB.
"We know that the introduction of new import and export regulatory requirements alongside new checks and controls on trade between the EU and UK, excluding Northern Ireland, adds additional burdens on companies and our Departments and Agencies are continuing to engage with companies and haulage and logistics companies to help them work through these new checks and controls."
However the CSO said in its statement that some of the decline in British exports may have been due to pre-Christmas stockpiling and the fact that the hospitality sector in Ireland is closed due to the Covid pandemic thus reducing consumer demand for certain products.
With British suppliers to Ireland losing out financially-so far- there are growing signs, ironically, that north/south trade on the island of Ireland is picking up!
Northern Ireland, which is politically in the UK but technically speaking, is ‘remaining’ in the European Union purely for trade purposes only, has seen its traders record increased volumes of product purchased from the Republic instead of GB to circumvent long customs checks, inspection controls and delays at ports such as Belfast and Larne.
The CSO figures show that Republic of Ireland imports heading south from Northern Ireland were up by 10% from €161m to €177million.
On the other hand, exports going to Northern Ireland from the South were up 17% in January from €170m to €199m compared to the same period in 2020.
While this change in purchasing patterns may be good for some opportunistic traders in the Republic, any further decline in British exports to the island of Ireland may force Boris Johnson to do an embarrassing u-turn on a previously held position.
Speaking in the House of Commons London on January 13th last, he told Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party that his Government would have "no hesitation" in triggering Article 16 of the N.I. Protocol if 'disproportionate' problems arise.”
The activation of Article 16 would see a contentious hard physical border re-instated on the island of Ireland to allow free movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland.
Such a move though could spark a re-emergence of hostile Irish republican terrorism and would, in all likelihood, see the US Government refuse to sign a trade deal with the UK.
Joe Biden, the most ‘Irish’ US President since JFK, has indicated more than once in recent months that any move to undermine the 1998 British-Irish Peace Agreement would severely strain relations between Washington and London.
With falling GB export revenues from Ireland and a threat to impose Article 16, Boris Johnson may yet regret what he wished for!
'None of us have had a great COVID,' says EU Commissioner McGuinness
Countries around the world were unprepared for a global pandemic and have struggled to deal with COVID-19, a European Union commissioner said on Sunday (21 March) when asked by the BBC about the bloc’s stop-start rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, writes Estelle Shirbon.
“Frankly, none of us have had a great COVID. I think all of us should put our hands up and say we were not prepared for this global pandemic, we did not do our best at the beginning, but we are doing our best now to protect our citizens,” said Financial Services and Financial Stability Commissioner Mairead McGuinness (pictured).
“That’s exactly where Europe is focused on, is on protecting our citizens, and once everyone is protected we are safe, so I think we all need to calm down,” she said in response to a line of questioning about European leaders’ mixed messages on the safety of the AstraZeneca shot and on the bloc’s feud with the firm over supplies.
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