In the 23 years since the historic Good Friday Agreement peace deal ended three decades of brutal, bitter conflict in Northern Ireland, fears that widespread violence could return increased sharply after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
As the UK prepared to leave the EU, the former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major were among the politicians who were most adamant that Brexit could undermine the peace agreement.
Those fears were realised when riots and disorder broke out in Northern Ireland at the end of March.
The riots have almost exclusively involved unionists. The violence has been widely linked to long-simmering anger about the Northern Ireland Protocol, the special post-Brexit trade arrangement that has created additional trade barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Well-documented shortages of certain products in Northern Ireland in the early months of 2021, as well as other early complications, have exacerbated frustrations.
Threats of violence were quick to surface. In January, EU inspections of animal-based food produce arriving at Belfast and Larne ports from Britain were briefly suspended because of concerns that staff carrying out checks were being intimidated. Graffiti threatening port staff had been appearing regularly since the protocol came into effect.
There is deep and genuine discontent within broad swaths of political unionism over the Northern Ireland Protocol. However, Irish nationalist parties such as Sinn Fein and the SDLP, as well as the nonaligned Alliance Party, would argue that the problem is not the protocol but Brexit in the first place.
The implications for Northern Ireland were barely mentioned during debates ahead of the referendum. The likes of Blair and Major were notable exceptions in Britain. However, many politicians in the Republic of Ireland issued warnings that a Leave vote could have disastrous consequences for Northern Ireland, as did the Alliance Party and the Irish nationalist parties.
A problem for the DUP in this regard is that it passionately campaigned for a Leave vote and even helped fund “Vote Leave” ads in Britain. Then, during the torturous Brexit negotiations, the party rejected proposed arrangements that would not have had an impact on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain in order to push for a harder Brexit.
During the years between the 2016 vote and the UK’s full departure on January 1, 2021, fears of renewed violence were based on the idea of a return to a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — something that would inflame nationalists.
Leo Varadkar, the Republic of Ireland’s prime minister at the time, brought a newspaper article about a fatal 1972 attack on a customs post to a 2018 EU summit to convince his fellow leaders of the need to avoid a border. In the end, the resurrection of that hard border on the island of Ireland was avoided. But violence has not been.
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