How Brexit Lit the Fuse in Northern Ireland

Loyalist fears that Boris Johnson is abandoning them have sparked a wave of violence that could endanger the Good Friday Agreement.

Nationalists and Loyalists riot at the Peace Wall gates which divide the two communities on April 7 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Nationalists and Loyalists riot at the Peace Wall gates which divide the two communities on April 7 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Northern Ireland is experiencing its worst bout of unrest in years. It is one of the adverse—but foreseeable—consequences of Brexit. Fueled by their concern over the future of Northern Ireland, loyalists, who primarily identify as British and Protestant and want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, are perpetrating most of the violence. The disputed constitutional status of Northern Ireland is the main axis of political expression in the country, and most loyalists vote for unionist parties that hold protecting the union as their highest priority.

The rioting first erupted on March 29 in Derry, a predominantly Catholic city that nonetheless occupies an exalted position in Protestant cultural memory. Loyalist youths clashed with police using bricks, fireworks, and gasoline bottle bombs. The fighting persisted for several nights before spreading to other towns and cities across Northern Ireland, including Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena, and Newtownabbey. At least 88 police officers have been injured in the disorder.

Anger among loyalists first reached a boiling point late last month after authorities chose not to prosecute members of Sinn Fein, the country’s leading nationalist party, over violations of COVID-19 regulations during the funeral of a former leading member of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA) last June. Photos of the event showed hundreds of people in attendance, including senior Sinn Fein figures, despite a strict cap on outdoor gatherings. The decision not to prosecute seems to have been the immediate spark for the recent rioting.

Despite their fierce loyalty to Britain, loyalists harbor deep mistrust of the British government and have long feared that London would abandon them for the sake of political expediency.

Events now seem to be taking a more sinister turn. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group that played a central role in fighting the IRA during the Troubles and was ultimately responsible for the deaths of more than 400 people, has been accused of intimidating Catholic families out of their homes in some parts of the country. The group was behind attacks on three homes in Belfast in which it believed Catholics were living and recently ordered Catholic families to leave their homes in Carrickfergus.

Although Brexit watchers have long warned about a possible outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland, some observers might be surprised to find it coming from the loyalist side. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, there was widespread concern that the construction of customs checks along the Irish border would give the IRA a leg to restart its campaign of violence. Much of the subsequent political wrangling was about mitigating those concerns.

Comparatively little attention was paid to the concerns of loyalists, even though they have a long history of civil disobedience and armed resistance to any political change that was perceived to dilute the union between Northern Ireland and Britain. Despite their fierce loyalty to Britain and British culture, loyalists harbor deep mistrust of the British government and have long feared that London would abandon them for the sake of political expediency. These feelings date to at least the late 19th century, and they were exacerbated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to accept the Northern Ireland Protocol in October 2019.

There was initial speculation that loyalist paramilitary groups were behind the recent violence—or at least helped instigate it—but police now report that it was largely spontaneous and unorganized. Still, it’s hard to discount the role paramilitaries have played over the past few years in whipping up public discontent and bringing the country to this point.

At the heart of this is the fear that Brexit could ultimately lead to a united Ireland. Northern Ireland voted by a slim majority to remain in the European Union in the June 2016 referendum, and nationalists have since used this to intensify their push for a referendum on Irish unity. This campaign has occurred against the backdrop of demographic change that seems to favor Catholics and an upsurge of Sinn Fein’s popularity across the country.

All of this has contributed to an increasing feeling of alienation and marginalization among loyalists that “their” country is slowly slipping away from them. Alongside the anger in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, “there’s a frustration which has been simmering and growing probably for two decades in relation to the one-sided nature of the peace process,” said Jamie Bryson, a prominent loyalist activist.

After the Conservative victory in December 2019, the DUP became mostly irrelevant, and British politics went on without unionist concerns in mind.

Loyalists gained international notoriety in 2001 and 2002, when angry mobs of protesters attacked schoolgirls attending a Catholic school in a Protestant area of Belfast. The last major round of loyalist violence started in late 2012, when the nationalist-dominated Belfast City Council voted to no longer fly the British flag every day of the year, generating widespread anger among loyalists who felt their cultural symbols were being sidelined; some 157 people were injured in those riots.

Anger has been brewing in the loyalist community since Johnson renegotiated the Brexit withdrawal agreement in October 2019. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was politically dependent on the 10 seats held by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and had little choice but to take unionist concerns seriously. But since the Conservatives’ landslide election victory in December 2019, Johnson has been free to pursue his preferred Brexit without having to consider unionists.

Among other stipulations, the deal created the Northern Ireland Protocol, which ensured that Northern Ireland would remain a de facto part of the EU single market and customs union even after the rest of the United Kingdom departed. Loyalists feared the arrangement made unification with the Irish Republic—the core aim of Irish nationalists—more likely. In the unionist view, placing a customs border in the Irish Sea as opposed to one along the Irish border adds a barrier between Britain and Northern Ireland, which ultimately weakens the union.

Johnson’s endorsement of the agreement was seen as the ultimate betrayal by loyalists. The prime minister had previously described himself as a “fervent and passionate unionist” and largely rode to power on the back of his steadfast support of the union. This stance won him the backing of the the DUP in Parliament—which then held 10 seats and was considered vital to passing any legislation regarding Brexit prior to the December 2019 election.

After the Conservative victory in that election, the DUP became mostly irrelevant, and British politics went on without unionist concerns in mind. “Boris Johnson has shafted the loyalist people of Northern Ireland,” a member of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) reportedly said after the deal was signed.

In the aftermath of the agreement, loyalists organized numerous meetings across the country to demonstrate their opposition to the deal. Members of loyalist paramilitary groups were reportedly in attendance at some of these meetings. Giving a defiant air to the proceedings, some people called for “resistance” and to “[do] whatever it takes” to prevent any more Brexit compromises. Members of the UDA were also reportedly preparing large-scale protests and demonstrations against the agreement.

Loyalist discontent generally subsided at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as the country’s attention shifted to the public health crisis. But recent political events, including renewed tensions over the protocol, have reignited loyalist anger.

The British government’s unilateral decision in early March to extend the grace period for the implementation of the customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain reenlivened the debate about the protocol and stoked loyalist anxieties.

On March 3, the chair of the Loyalist Communities Council—an umbrella organization consisting of the UDA, the UVF, and another loyalist paramilitary group, the Red Hand Commando—sent a letter to Johnson withdrawing the organizations’ support of the Good Friday Agreement. “Please do not underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family,” the letter said.

Signed at the culmination of the peace process in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement is credited with bringing an end to the Troubles and establishing the shaky peace that Northern Ireland currently lives with today.

At the time of its signing, the support of the loyalist paramilitary groups was considered so instrumental to the success of the peace process that both the Irish taoiseach and British prime minister held several private meetings with loyalist leaders to persuade them to back a political compromise. Their recent decision to withdraw their support is a blow to the hard-won peace in the country.

Unionists, however, have always been deeply divided over the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Although 71 percent of voters in Northern Ireland were in favor of the agreement in 1998, just 57 percent of Protestants were, compared with 99 percent of Catholics. The DUP famously stood against the then-dominant Ulster Unionist Party and denounced the agreement, channeling the feelings of betrayal and alienation felt among many unionists at the time. By 2001, almost two-thirds of Protestants in a poll felt that the agreement had benefited nationalists more than unionists, and just a third said they would vote for the agreement again.

Although 71 percent of voters in Northern Ireland were in favor of the agreement in 1998, just 57 percent of Protestants were, compared with 99 percent of Catholics.

“The Belfast Agreement is incompatible with being pro-union because the agreement by its very design is designed to end the union,” Bryson said. “The peace process … was sold to nationalism as a process, which is almost like a Trojan horse, to allow the ultimate destination point of a [united Ireland].”

The DUP’s decision to enter government alongside Sinn Fein in 2007 deepened the feeling of marginalization among many grassroots unionists. It also meant there were no longer any major anti-agreement unionist parties, making street action a more attractive alternative.

It’s difficult to predict what the outcome of the latest round of unrest will be. All of Northern Ireland’s political leaders have strongly condemned the violence, and large sections of both communities fully reject any attempt by paramilitaries to drag the country back into violence.

But loyalist resistance has been a feature of Irish politics since the 19th century, and it has had a significant impact on the direction of both Irish and British history. If loyalists themselves are to be believed—and there’s no good reason to doubt them—the violence might die down, but the anger, discontent, and alienation that drove it are unlikely to go away so long as the threat of Irish unity hangs over their heads.

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty