Northern Ireland is back in the headlines for the worst possible reason. For those of us who follow the region, it never really left the news — the signs were clear. Debates around borders and separation have taken place against the backdrop of simmering tension, from a car bomb explosion and the shooting of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in 2019 to threats against customs checkpoints just two months ago. Now those tensions have come to a boil and scenes of violence — at times perpetrated by very young people — flash across our screens. Within the last two weeks, over 70 police officers have been injured, tires and vehicles set on fire, and walls smashed open.
This is partly a Brexit issue: leaving the European Union’s single market requires setting up customs checks at the EU border, which in this case means between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But these checks would reinstate the hard border that was broken down in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, raising the risk of Republican protests and paramilitary activity. Instead, Northern Ireland now finds itself temporarily included in the single market. And the customs border has moved to the Irish Sea, creating disruption in food supply in January and angering Unionists who see this as a break from the United Kingdom.
This is, however, mostly a story about the people of Northern Ireland. It is crucial to recenter it around the human toll and the country’s trajectory, lest we forget how we got here.
THE ROOTS OF DISCONTENT
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement established new institutions, decommissioned paramilitaries, and provided for the free movement of people and goods on the island of Ireland. Today, these tenets have all been undermined. Northern Ireland was without a power-sharing government for three years (from 2017 to 2020) and cross-party relations in Stormont remain tense. Dissident paramilitary movements have remained active and in 2017, the terrorist threat was still deemed “severe.” And free movement, now under threat — be it on the island or across the Irish Sea — has not brought the same economic prosperity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland.
Indeed, Northern Ireland’s household average earnings rank third-lowest across the United Kingdom and the gap in disposable household income (81.5% of UK average) remained constant between 1997 and 2014. On the Ireland side, by 2018 the gap in GDP growth between the Republic and Northern Ireland grew to 3.8%. COVID–19 killed approximately 2,546 people in Northern Ireland between March 2020 and January 2021 (out of around 16,000 deaths in total), adding to the sense of despair.
In a post-conflict society, creating opportunity that can heal the wounds of the past is crucial. For too long, the nation has been left to trail behind its neighbors while local figures bickered and London and its partners took peace for granted.
Most importantly, youth employment severely lags the total adult employment rate (74% versus 59% for 16–24 years old at the end of 2019, the latter group representing around 11% of the population). This is in spite of a 10% increase in youth (under 21) participation in higher education between 1998 and 2018 and the highest application rates in the United Kingdom.
This economic situation, coupled with a changing demographic landscape and community tensions in the wake of Brexit, helps explain why the unrest we see in Northern Ireland today seems to include so many young people. Their outlook on their present and future is grim; the percentage of youth who foresee positive relations between Catholic and Protestant communities has been in freefall for five years, now just above 30%. Talk of a border poll, or reunification referendum, has heightened this sense of division.
Leaders in Belfast and London have done little over the past few years to address this situation. Unionist parties supported Brexit while former Prime Minister Theresa May’s government relied on one side of the Northern Irish political spectrum, rendering Westminster a biased mediator.
The spirit of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the trade agreement negotiated with the EU went against that of the Good Friday Agreement by establishing barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, and creating a de facto choice between a border on the island or down the Irish Sea. Though the Protocol does prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement requires Northern Ireland in its entirety to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The mismatch between this requirement and Northern Ireland’s special trading status post-trade agreement has created tensions that London is only now starting to grapple with — and suspending the Protocol will only pour fuel on this fire.
This laser focus on political considerations and seeing Brexit through has obscured the human picture on the ground in Northern Ireland. Blame for violence does not lie at the feet of political leaders, of course, but they ignored the warning signs. In a post-conflict society, creating opportunity that can heal the wounds of the past is crucial. For too long, the nation has been left to trail behind its neighbors while local figures bickered and London and its partners took peace for granted.
PUT THE PEOPLE FIRST
The immediate priority is to defuse this violence. In the long run, however, we must heed the lessons of twenty-three years of imperfect peace. As images on our screens show burning buses and torn-down walls, let us focus on the people behind this violence and those around it who want a better future.
Parochial interests must give way to a more integrated society in Northern Ireland, with a specific focus on youth and opportunity. Westminster must once again show it cares about the Union — all of the Union — and take targeted measures to improve socio-economic indicators across the board. This includes enhanced unemployment services (e.g., job search), re-skilling support toward higher value-added sectors, and financial and administrative assistance towards small and midsize enterprises, as drivers of innovation and employment.
Brexiteers also have to recognize the impact their decisions have had in Belfast and take appropriate steps to reduce this impact, from toning down the rhetoric and publicly acknowledging the hardship Brexit has created to setting up a clear plan to replace the billions of euros (€16.4 billion between 2014 and 2020 alone, which is a little under $19.74 billion) the EU has supplied for years to support socio-economic development and peace in Northern Ireland.
There is no excuse for people setting cars on fire, ramming through peace walls, and above all, adults cheering on children who join in. But our discourse around Brexit, borders, and peace has been much too broad. It is time to recenter it around those who truly bear the brunt: the people of Northern Ireland. Twenty-three years ago, with the Good Friday Agreement, they were the ones who were promised peace and prosperity in an integrated society. What are we doing to fulfill this promise?
Donatienne Ruy is an Associate Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. She works on European issues, including Brexit and EU policy, and transatlantic relations.