In a development which seems eerily appropriate in this, its centenary year, the Northern Irish state appears to be locked into a trajectory toward sectarian polarisation, renewed street violence, and perhaps worse. Rioting and street unrest has been a common feature of Northern Irish life throughout its troubled history: its very founding a century ago was marked by “five weeks of ruthless persecution by boycott, fire, plunder and assault”1 against the state’s nationalist minority, and of course the more recent, decades-long armed conflict was triggered by large-scale communal unrest in the summer of 1969. As the crisis-prone statelet prepares for its centenary year, the menace of sectarian enmity has again raised its ugly head, with an orchestrated return of street-based confrontation at the “interfaces” that demarcate predominantly Catholic and Protestant districts. Reports that the largely loyalist-instigated violence has been the worst since “the start of the Troubles” borders on the hyperbolic, but there can be little doubt that the riots represent a serious if somewhat localised threat to political stability. Certainly they have exposed the weak foundations of the “peace” that has prevailed in a society often lauded by British and American elites as a model for “conflict resolution.” No wonder, then, that a recent poll shows only a minority who believe there is anything worth “celebrating” in its hundred-year milestone.
The immediate backdrop to this resurgent sectarianism is well documented. For several months unionist elites have been ratcheting up tensions in the aftermath of Brexit, claiming with little justification that new custom checks for goods crossing the Irish Sea are a mortal threat to the union with Britain. Having heralded Brexit in bombastic tones of imperial nostalgia—including more than a few Trumpesque nods to the coming revival of long-gone industries that once provided stable employment in Protestant districts—the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was left floundering as their supposed allies in London cut a deal with the EU that offered little either materially or symbolically. Faced with desertion of their own supporters toward the fringe right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the DUP tacked sharply to the right, stoking fear and raising tensions, hosting a formal meeting with loyalist paramilitaries and extending them the “respectable” cover these elements leveraged into orchestrating a series of set-piece riots, for which working-class youth were to provide the cannon fodder.
It must be noted that at least a portion of responsibility for the customs arrangements lies with mainstream unionism itself. For two plus years, the DUP dutifully propped up an embattled Conservative government at Westminster in its farcical negotiations with Brussels, only to be betrayed by these Tory allies, whose dalliance with Ulster unionism was purely pragmatic. In return for DUP support, it should be recalled, the Tories had solemnly declared that no British government could ever countenance custom checks between the UK and Belfast, only to renege on this promise in a mad dash to “get Brexit done.” This was a classic example, if there ever was one, of what Marx characterized as unionism’s “intruding loyalty” into British ruling class affairs: opportunistically courted by Tory elites at times of parliamentary crisis, quickly discarded once their loyalty became an impediment to capitalist interests in London.
The DUP had already been under pressure for its support for a Tory Brexit before Boris Johnson signed on to the final withdrawal agreement. Faced with a choice between a bargain basement Brexit hatched by old Etonians in London or continuing membership of the EU, many liberal protestants (along with the vast majority of nationalists) opted for the latter. The persistent, wilful ignorance of Northern Irish affairs displayed by British politicians bolstered this perception, giving the impression that Brussels was a benign force, committed at the very least to maintaining peace in the face of a blundering British establishment. As Dan Finn reminds us, however, elites in London can’t claim a monopoly on “cloddish insensitivity to Irish concerns.” Within weeks of the post-Brexit arrangements taking full effect, EU officials were threatening to exploit the “special status” of the North in a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the British government over the distribution of Covid vaccines. This flagrant exploitation of the new arrangements gifted the DUP with the political cover to launch a sustained campaign of fear-mongering over the “border at the Irish sea”—conveniently omitting their own role in its creation.
Much of the commentary on the riots, therefore, has taken unionist grievance at face value, with a string of increasingly banal offerings from journalists who explain the violence in the narrow terms of a destabilized “Unionist identity” after Brexit. Two basic facts confront this attempt to absolve unionist elites. Firstly, unionism’s attitude to divergences between London and the North is grossly inconsistent. Consider the position of the DUP toward the urgent question of reproductive rights, for example: access to abortion has been severely restricted in the North compared to Britain for several decades. Not only did the DUP seek to maintain this intra-UK divergence: they energetically opposed efforts to equalise abortion rights across both regions—under the guise, no less, that London had no right to “impose” such a thing on the people of the North. The reaction of the DUP to the extension of equal marriage, it should be remembered too, was predicated on the very same reasoning.
Secondly, the DUP have for more than a decade robustly advocated for a special rate of corporation tax for the North. This would set tax on big business at rates far below those in London, creating a special economic zone in the North and (in theory) making the region a magnet for foreign direct investment. Given their record of insisting on non-alignment, it is impossible to take seriously the DUP’s objection that “British identity” was put under threat by customs checks but not by their regressive approach to reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ equality, or divergence in corporate tax rates. Given the self-serving nature of the DUP’s approach to questions of “identity,” therefore, it is necessary to locate the resurgent sectarianism in something more than a crude identitarian reductionism that absolves the agency of the unionist elites themselves.