Domestic Politics Politics

Belfast is burning: 100 years on from the partition of Ireland

After decades of peace under the Good Friday Agreement, young British Loyalists bring havoc to towns and cities across Northern Ireland.

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Montecruz Foto

The 3 May this year marks 100 years since the Partition of Ireland. At a time when tensions in Northern Ireland again seem to be reaching a boiling point, the anniversary offers a time to reflect on the circumstances that led to partition and consider what lies ahead for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Since Ireland first came under British rule in the 13th century, tensions have run consistently high between the two nations particularly due to religious divides, as unlike Britain, Ireland was a majority Catholic nation. Tragedies such as the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852), often seen as being grossly mishandled by the British Parliament, increased the will of the Irish people to seek Home Rule. Calls for independence continued to rise, leading to Sinn Féin, an Irish nationalist party, proclaiming an Irish Republic in 1919, which led to the Irish War of Independence.

The British Parliament passed the Home Rule bill in 1920 in an attempt to ease tensions, but this did not placate divisions within Ireland itself. Irish Unionists – concentrated in the Northern province of Ulster – wished to remain a part of Great Britain under the new Home Rule arrangements, whilst nationalists were still demanding a fully independent Irish Republic.

To avoid the growing risk of civil war, Ireland was divided in two in 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act, with Northern Ireland remaining part of Great Britain and the now Republic of Ireland becoming an independent state within the British Commonwealth (exiting in 1949).

However, over 100 years later, tensions within Northern Ireland in particular have risen to levels that would not have been unfamiliar during this time. As of this week, over 90 police officers from the Police Service in Northern Ireland have been injured in the line of duty whilst trying to tackle a series of tumultuous riots propagated by the country’s pro-British Loyalist community. At present these outbursts have been restricted to the country’s Northernmost counties affecting towns and cities like Londonderry, Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena, and Newtownabbey.

Many of those involved in the violence have been reported to be young members of the Ulster Protestant and Loyalist communities, as teenagers as young as 13 and 14 have been arrested on rioting charges. Throwing bricks and petrol bombs, the adolescent rioters have decimated tens of vehicles and retail facilities across the region, leaving in their wake the scorched metal carcasses of several cars and one hijacked Translink bus.

On the 10 April, The Good Friday agreement marked a very sobering 23rd anniversary. This commanding document enforced a consociative peace settlement in Northern Ireland, overseeing once again the return of devolved powers – in the form of the devolved assembly – and brought an end to sectarian tensions between fundementalist Pro-British Protestant and Pro-Irish nationalist populations. This was achieved through the establishment of several reconciliation bodies and by bestowing cultural autonomy to the two separate communities. It is often criticised for laying the foundations of unsteady co-existence, with no meaningful resolution to national and religious friction that still prevails decades later.

After years of peace, leading architects of the agreement have been left pondering the inheritance of these inflamed ethnic tensions. Commentators have suggested that the catalyst for the most recent uproar stems not from the immediate constitutional crisis, but instead derive from a legacy of pitfalls within the fledgling peace accord that are only recently revealing themselves. The question dominating the mood in Northern Ireland, is how is it possible that senior politicians within Sinn Fein – in close association with former members of the IRA – can so brazenly operate outside the law with absolute impunity?

On 30 June 2020, the funeral procession of Ex-IRA intelligence Officer Bobby Storey made headlines. The event was orchestrated and attended by senior elements of Sinn Fein, including Party leader Mary Lou Macdonald, leader in the North Michelle O’Neil and former leader Gerry Adams. In attendance there were 3000 members of the public, none of whom adhered to Covid-19 regulations.

It was only in light of the Public Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute the Sinn Fein leadership that the Unionist community came out in defiance, citing the ruling as evidence that the peace agreement offers immunity for the actions and behaviour of community leaders and that the police force is powerless to stop illegal cultural practices out of fear of stoking a paramilitary resurgence.

Unionist leaders have also linked the recent violence to increasing loyalist tensions over the Irish Sea Border introduced as part of the UK – EU Brexit deal. The deal has seen Northern Ireland remain as part of the single market to avoid a hard land border and allow for the movement of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

However, this means trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain has to follow EU import requirements, dividing the union, at least on trading terms. Unionists argue it damages trade and ultimately threatens Northern Ireland’s place within the union altogether. Unionists have only continued to grow more anxious, with many seeing the new trade arrangements as a step towards Northern Ireland rejoining the Republic of Ireland as one fully independent state.

As we commemorate the anniversary of partition, the cultural and political tensions seen in recent weeks call into question what has been achieved since the end of the Irish War of Independence, and The Troubles. With the Brexit deal pushing Northern Ireland and the Republic closer together and political clashes pushing nationalists and unionists further apart, all we can be sure of is that no one knows exactly what Ireland will look like when the 200th anniversary of partition rolls around.

Latest in Domestic Politics