Can Northern Ireland Avoid a Return to the Troubles?

Northern Ireland has been engulfed in riots for almost two weeks. Thus far there have been no casualties, but 88 police officers have been injured and property damage has been severe. Because the riots have been carried out by unionists—those who want Northern Ireland to remain as part of the United Kingdom—many are speculating that this could herald a return to the Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland for 30 years. Pundits have blamed the riots on a trade agreement signed by Boris Johnson’s government with the EU late last year in the wake of the completion of Brexit. But the violence can likely be attributed to other causes. 

In an article last year, I outlined why Northern Ireland posed such a problem to the negotiations between the U.K. and the EU: Brexit ended the free movement of people and goods between the U.K. and the rest of the EU. But that created its own problem: The Republic of Ireland is an EU member, and because of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 to end the Troubles, there cannot be a hard border between the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

With Brexit, this became a nearly unsolvable equation: How could the U.K. end freedom of movement with Europe but keep it with Ireland? If it were maintained, anyone who wanted to move to the U.K. could simply pass through the Republic of Ireland to the north, where they could then take a domestic flight to the rest of Britain. Likewise, goods could easily be smuggled into and out of the U.K. without paying tariffs. The other option—to set up a formal physical border—would be seen as a betrayal by the Republicans, led by Sinn Fein, and many feared it would reignite the Troubles. 

In the end, the U.K. effectively chose to move the border: Instead of border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland, border checks would take place between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. Northern Ireland would in practice remain part of the single market, and would continue to have to obey EU directives and regulation, although without having any influence over them. Unionists, who in 2016 voted to leave the EU by a crushing majority, were enraged by this betrayal, even more so because the main unionist party in Northern Ireland—the Democratic Unionist Party—had propped up the Conservative government after it lost its majority in the 2017 election. To the loyalists, it seemed as if the Conservatives had repaid them by turning their region into a colony of Brussels.

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