Fresh Unrest In Northern Ireland As Brexit Fuels Old Tensions

For nearly a week, Northern Ireland has confronted violence–the likes of which has not been seen in decades. 55 police officers have been injured, with ten arrests being made.

This recent explosion of anger has erupted from primarily a Protestant, British-backed “Loyalist” (or, “Unionist”) community that wants to keep its connection to the rest of the United Kingdom, rather than Ireland itself.

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Crowds of Protestant and Catholic youth have provoked each other along the site of the so-called “peace wall” in Belfast. This wall separates an Irish-nationalist Catholic neighborhood from a British-loyalist Protestant neighborhood and has become a center of violence, known by the Irish as “the troubles,” in recent days.

Brexit, as well as Covid, are cited as the catalysts for these renewed tensions between primarily Catholic and Protestant youths.

The Orange And the GreenĀ 

Unionists (or loyalists) who are primarily Protestant (and considered “orange” in the Irish flag color scheme) believe Northern Ireland must remain part of the U.K.

Nationalists (or Republicans) who are primarily Catholic (and the “green” in the flag) want Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland once and for all.

The struggle is centuries old but recently became exasperated due to Brexit.

Brexit to Blame

As a result of Brexit, Protestant Unionists believe they’ve been effectively betrayed by the British government. They worry that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kington has suffered and, as a result, Northern Ireland will be left economically behind. There are deep-rooted fears that the region’s future will be geared towards the Roman Catholic population that favors a united Ireland.

A Funeral For a Prominent IRA Member Leads to Tensions

Part of the tensions are being blamed on a decision made this week to not prosecute the mourners who attended a funeral for the death of a prominent member of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) last summer.

In June of 2020, during the height of Covid-19 restrictions, a funeral was held for Bobby Storey, a man believed to be the head of intelligence in the IRA. (The IRA has long advocated for a united Ireland, free from British rule and interference.) An estimated 2,000 people attended that funeral.


The decision to not prosecute funeral gatherers for breaking Covid regulations is viewed as the impetus for the violence. Unionists are outraged–and believe the Catholic funeral gatherers received special treatment. This, in turn, has lead to riots, protests and a call from the region’s first minister, Arlene Foster, for the region’s Police Chief, Simon Byrne, to resign.

White House Weighs In

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed the violence in the region saying, “we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.”

A “Brits Out Now IRA” sign in Bogside neighbourhood of Londonderry

The Longtime “Troubles” of Northern Ireland

This part of Ireland has long suffered from what the Irish refer to as “the troubles.” Ireland broke free from colonization from the British about a century ago after hundreds of years under the control by the British. 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties became an independent, Roman Catholic-majority country — the Ireland that we know today. The six remaining colonies in the north, with a Protestant majority, stayed British.

Historically, this meant the Catholic minority in the northern region struggles – experiencing discrimination in jobs and housing by the Protestant-run state. A civil rights struggle erupted in the 1960s and the British Army was deployed in 1969 to keep the peace. In 30 years, more than 3,600 people were killed in bombings and shootings in Ireland by paramilitary groups.

In 1998, the Good Friday peace accord established a power sharing government for Northern Ireland, promising that the region would remain British, provided the majority wanted that, but the possibility of a reunification with Ireland was not ruled out.

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