The pandemic has been difficult for David Milliken, who sells pro-UK drums, flags and pennants in his shop on Sandy Row, a stronghold of citizens loyal to the British monarchy in Belfast. Now, however, “things have reopened”, especially since “the turmoil returned”.
Two months ago, Sandy Row burst into flames when masked protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at police to protest what they described as “the betrayal of the brexit.”
With the royal marching season set to begin in July, there are fears that this eruption of violence was nothing more than a warm-up.
Like others at Sandy Row, Milliken, 49, doesn’t want to see the return of conflict in Northern Ireland, the bloody 30-year war between Catholic nationalists seeking to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, and the predominantly Protestant loyalists and unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
But brexit, which loyalists say is causing a rift between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, has been igniting sectarian passions to a degree that hadn’t been seen in decades.
That’s good for Milliken, or at least for his business, as he supplies items for the loyalist bands that will take to the streets to march on July 12, commemorating William of Orange’s iconic military victory over Catholic King James II in 1690 .
Usually, this flamboyant display of Protestant pride irritates Catholics. In this marching season, however, it is the loyalists who are feeling trampled and bitter, not the nationalists. Milliken compared the plight of the loyalists (an especially staunch subset of Northern Ireland’s Unionist population) to that of the Irish Republicans in the darkest times of the Northern Ireland conflict, when the nationalists faced armed British soldiers.
“It’s a mirrored version of what happened to the other community,” Milliken commented. “In recent years, young people have seen that the threat of violence works. Everything is starting to turn upside down.”
The specter of a return to violence poses a real risk to the Good Friday Agreement, sealed in 1998 and which ended decades of sectarian conflict, in part by curbing identity politics in Northern Ireland. Brexit has rekindled these passions, and they could be further exacerbated in 2021 if, as current opinion polls suggest, the main Irish nationalist party, the Sinn Féin, becomes the largest party in Northern Ireland, facing divided unionists and demoralized.
US President Joe Biden has already advised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to do anything to weaken the Good Friday Agreement, brokered with the help of another US Democratic President, Bill Clinton. Biden is expected to return to the matter this week, when he meets Boris ahead of a G7 summit in Cornwall, southwest England.
Biden is considering the appointment of an envoy to Northern Ireland, a prospect that Sinn Féin likes and worries loyalists, who fear the American leader’s favor with nationalists.
The trigger for the recent riots was the police’s decision to authorize the funeral of an alleged Irish Republican Army (IRA) intelligence chief despite restrictions on mass meetings owed to Covid.
The deeper cause, however, is something called the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit legal construct that has left Northern Ireland in an awkward position between the UK and EU trading systems. The protocol was born out of an agreement reached between London and Brussels to avoid bringing back a concrete border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The problem is that the protocol provides for the checking of goods that move between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, something that entails both a commercial and psychological cost.
“This is a separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and it has hit the community here hard,” says David Campbell, chairman of the Council of Loyalist Communities, which represents paramilitary groups that some say are instigating agitation.
Campbell said that in reality the paramilitaries tried to keep the population off the streets. But he warned that unless the protocol is abandoned or radically rewritten, violence could flare up again during marching season. “The problem with violence from the unionist side is that it precipitates violence from the republican side,” he says.
So far, the feeling of revolt seems to be concentrated in unionist and loyalist areas. In Sandy Row, banners hanging from street lamps declare the district “Will NEVER accept a border on the Irish Sea!” – reference to controls imposed on trade with the United Kingdom.
A similar flag was hoisted near a littered lot where villagers are storing firewood for fires on the night before 12 July.
Loyalists saw Biden’s election as yet another setback, as it placed an Irish-born, devout Catholic American in the White House, after four years during which Donald Trump had nurtured a rapprochement with Boris and expressed support for the United Kingdom in his bitter divorce from the European Union.
Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff of Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time of the Good Friday Accord, acknowledged that Biden’s contribution “may be important in relation to the protocol”.
The sense of a community in retreat was palpable on Sandy Row.
Merchant Paul McCann, 46, mentioned that builders are buying land on the fringes of the neighborhood to build high-end hotels and apartment buildings. He said the city wants to demolish the Boyne Bridge to create a transport hub. The building is a predecessor of the one that William of Orange would have gone through on his way to the fateful battle against James 2nd. “They’re trying to undo our history,” says McCann. “They want to shrink our loyalist communities more and more.”
Gordon Johnston, 28, is a community organizer. For him, it’s a matter of justice: loyalists have accepted the argument that re-imposing a concrete border between Ireland’s north and south would provoke violence; therefore, the same principle should apply to Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. “It’s either one thing or the other,” he said. “Either we have no borders or there will be violence in the streets.”