From the 1916 ‘Easter Rising’ to the 2021 ‘Easter Riots’: The Trouble in Northern Ireland Continues
Violence and killings in Northern Ireland had been considered a thing of the past. But recent events, such as the so called ‘Easter Riots’ of 2021, have shown yet again that the struggle over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or be re-united with the Republic of Ireland remains as vicious as ever. Protestant Unionists and their militant branch Loyalists on the one side and Catholic Nationalists and their militant branch Republicans on the other are as uncompromisingly opposed to each other as ever.
The Troubles refer to the Northern Irish sectarian conflict from 1968 to 1998 between Protestant Unionists/ Loyalists and Roman Catholic Nationalists/Republicans, resulting in the death of 3,700 people and around 50,000 injured on both sides. It officially ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. But the Troubles were only a recent addition to a historically entrenched and complex struggle between the UK and Ireland. They go as far back as the Norman invasion, which effectively made Ireland England’s first colony, and climaxed in the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916 and the Partition between the now independent Irish Free State and Northern Ireland’s remaining within the UK in 1922. The military wing of the Irish independence movement at the time was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), later to become the IRA (Irish Republican Army) which also carried out most attacks during the Troubles and seemingly remains active.
The violence on March 29 2021 issued from gangs of youths beginning in Derry – a city which Irish nationalist John Hume famously referred to as “in many ways a microcosm of the Irish problem”. The riots continued on a near-nightly basis until the death of Prince Philip on 9 April and spread to a number of towns and cities, “including Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Newtownabbey”. They do not really come as a surprise, though. Since 2019, the police recorded an increase in violence in Northern Ireland for which they blame the New IRA. Another splinter group, the Continuity IRA, claimed responsibility for plans to attack a ferry on Brexit night on January 31 2021 (Police had previously discovered a working bomb attached to a refrigerated truck). Also in 2019, the 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead during riots in – again – Derry. The militant republican group ‘New IRA’ had already claimed responsibility for the crime in 2019 and called it to be a ‘tragic accident’ that occurred whilst firing at police. It is being investigated as a murder because McKee wrote about the Northern Ireland conflict and its consequences.
The recent Easter Riots are particularly worrying for yet another reason: Police and eye-witnesses report that teenagers as young as 13 years old were seen throwing bricks and petrol bombs towards the police whilst being cheered on by adults. This shows that a generation that have not experienced the horror of the Troubles – and which the Irish times refers to as “ceasefire babies” are – not only willing to use violence but also to continue with IRA-style guerrilla methods.
The reasons are manifold: while the BBC has stated that “Unionist leaders have linked the violence to simmering loyalist tensions over the Irish Sea border imposed as a result of the UK-EU Brexit deal“, the New York Times highlights “the stresses of the Covid-19 pandemic”. Indeed, the lockdown and level-5 restrictions enforced in Ireland have increased the perception of Northern Ireland as a continuously developing but also forgotten territory in terms of economic growth and job perspectives – the same reasons that led to the original foundation of the IRA back in the 1960s, “where longstanding social inequality helped foment the Northern Irish conflict [...] and where many feel they have never experienced the economic dividend promised by those who promoted the Good Friday agreement.”
It seems the relationship between the UK and Northern Ireland has come full circle.
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