Tensions Rise in Northern Ireland, Sparking Concerns About Renewed Violence

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Northern Ireland

Residents of Northern Ireland have increasingly felt disregarded by those in power in the United Kingdom over foreign policy, policing, and Brexit implementation, leading to concerns of renewed violence in the region.


To understand the present state of affairs in Northern Ireland, it’s important to have an insight into the history of its relationship with other nations in the regaion.

Hostilities in Northern Ireland have existed between pro-UK ‘loyalists’ and republican Irish ‘nationalists’ since the state was formed during the Irish Civil War.

The 100th anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland was celebrated last week, but the split between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is only the tail end of a long and storied history of Irish colonisation, oppression, discontent and self-determination.

Opposition to the colonisation of Ireland by the English has existed since the first attempts at conquest by the Normans in the 12th century.

The island was so rebellious that by the 14th century, the only “civilised” four counties around the colony’s strongest foothold in Dublin were known as The Pale, and this became so ingrained in the collective memory that “beyond the Pale” passed into idiom used even today.

Subsequent English colonisation initiatives have wrought terrible destruction on Ireland’s people, from Cromwell’s “to hell or to Connacht”, to the constant taxation of the people that contributed the enormous numbers of dead and emigrants during An Gorta Mór, or the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century.

The Irish War of Independence gave rise to the British partition of Ireland between “Southern Ireland” – which became the Irish Free State and is now the Republic of Ireland – and the six counties of Northern Ireland in the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

The Southern/Northern division was made to separate regional Catholic and Protestant majorities.

Protest and violence have been a frequent part of Northern Ireland’s century-long history, with decades of serious sectarian conflict and destruction, known as The Troubles from the 70s until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

However, religion is no longer the defining feature it once was.

Current affairs

Unionist tempers have flared recently over a lax public policy towards those with clear republican allegiance.

Enforcement of COVID restrictions were questioned with large crowds, including politicians, attending last year’s public funeral of a senior member of the Irish Republican Army, Bobby Storey.

In March this year, the Public Prosecution Service announced the decision not to prosecute anyone over the alleged breaches, which has angered unionists at soft treatment of those not even loyal to the state.

This tension spilt over into violence last month in rioting from unionists over the growing separation between Northern Ireland and the UK. Northern Ireland has been left outside the state division, agreed between Mr Johnson and the EU.

This means UK citizens crossing the Irish Sea from Northern Ireland to Britain are facing customs and quarantine checks on themselves and their goods.

Meanwhile, within Ireland, a ‘soft border’ exists over the land, allowing easier movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic than Northern Ireland to the UK capital.

This followed the announcement in March 2021 by the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella representative organisation for unionist paramilitary groups, threatening to leave the Good Friday peace agreement over this Brexit protocol.

While Mr Johnson played down the implementation of an Irish Sea border, he conceded that a dogmatic implementation of the UK-EU Irish Sea border would result in an “absurd situation” for Northern Irish UK citizens.

Perhaps foreseeing this, a majority (55.8%) of Northern Irish voters wanted the UK to remain member of the EU.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 (UK) requires the Northern Ireland secretary to call a referendum on reunification “if at any time it appears likely to him [sic] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

Although a free and united Ireland has been the vision of nationalists for centuries, Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the Republic would be a drastic change for both states; more drastic than changes required for the imposition of an Australian Republic.

It will be complicated to disentangle Northern Ireland from the UK and just as complicated to integrate it into the workings of the Republic.


Support for reunification has been running at around 70% approval by Republic Irish for the last century or so.

However, Irish Republican goodwill reduces when confronted by the financial deficit that Northern Ireland has been running in recent decades.

The UK Treasury has been supporting the approximate €10,000,000 shortfall in revenue, largely used to support the needs of lower socio-economic and disadvantaged communities, without investing in longer-term projects that would drive economic development. A major question remains whether the Republic will be willing and able to provide financial assistance to plug deficit.

The continuing example of reunification of Germany following the fall of the Soviet Union suggests that any successful reunification effort will be the result of a long process.

The rest of the UK

62% of Scottish voters were against leaving the EU, so the Brexit result has raised the ire of many Scots.

The failure of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence has generally been credited to the concern that an independent Scotland would be out of the EU as it is no longer part of the member state and would have had to then initiate the slow process to reapply.

Brexit has triggered strong campaigning for another “once in a generation” vote on Scottish Independence, which now looks likely to be far more successful.

Welsh nationalism is certainly a real presence within the small country, though nowhere near as strong in sentiment or as developed as with the Irish or Scottish. If Northern Ireland and Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom, that could that be the catalyst that starts an independent Wales.

Here in Australia

Australia has enjoyed a detached semi-independence since 1901, first as a dominion before gaining independence of its legislation in 1942 with the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act, and formally removing the final connections to British governmental and legal influence.

However, Australia still requires an Englishperson to confirm its laws: The Queen, Australia’s hereditary head of state.

As a nation that not only purports to uphold its own democracy, but claims to crusade on behalf of democracy and democratic principles across the world, this is a strange contradiction.

A referendum on an Australian Republic failed in 1999 and a new referendum was generally agreed pointless until after the death of The Queen.

As the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland starts to separate, will Australia go in the same direction, or will it keep a British monarch when British countries shun the same?

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Patrick O'Sullivan

Patrick O’Sullivan

Patrick O’Sullivan is an experienced criminal defence lawyer with a special interest in social justice issues including mental health, the rights of the vulnerable and access to the criminal justice system.

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