The pandemic has been difficult for David Milliken, who sells pro-British drums, flags and pennants in his shop in 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 caught fire when masked protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police in protest at what they described as “the Brexit betrayal”.
With the royal march season set to begin in July, there are fears this eruption of violence may be nothing more than a warm-up.
Like others in Sandy Row, Milliken, 49, does not 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 trade unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK.
But Brexit, which loyalists say is causing a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, has ignited sectarian passions to a degree not seen in decades.
That’s good for Milliken, or at least for his business, as he supplies items to loyalist groups 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 feel trampled and bitter, not the nationalists. Milliken compared the plight of the Loyalists (a particularly loyal subset of the Unionist population of Northern Ireland) to that of Irish Republicans in the darkest moments of the Northern Ireland conflict, when the Nationalists clashed with soldiers. British armed forces.
“It’s a mirror version of what happened to the other community,” Milliken commented. “In recent years, young people have found that the threat of violence is working. Everything begins to change. “
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 escalate further in 2021 if, as current opinion polls suggest, Ireland’s main nationalist party, Sinn Féin, becomes the largest party in Northern Ireland, facing to divided and demoralized unionists.
US President Joe Biden has previously advised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to do anything to weaken the Good Friday deal, negotiated 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 emissary to Northern Ireland, a prospect Sinn Féin likes and worries about loyalists, who fear the favor of the American leader among nationalists.
The trigger for the recent riots was the police decision to allow the funeral of a purported Irish Republican Army (IRA) intelligence chief despite restrictions on mass meetings due to Covid.
The deeper cause, however, is what is known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit legal construct that has left Northern Ireland in an awkward position between the UK and UK trading systems. the EU. The protocol was born from an agreement concluded 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 control of goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which comes at both a commercial and a psychological cost.
“This is a separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and it has hit the community hard here,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Council of Loyalist Communities, which represents paramilitary groups. which some say incite unrest.
Campbell said that in reality the paramilitaries tried to keep people off the streets. But he warned that unless the protocol is dropped or drastically rewritten, violence could resume during marching season. “The problem with violence on the Unionist side is that it precipitates violence on the Republican side,” he said.
So far, the feeling of revolt seems to be concentrated in unionist and loyalist areas. In Sandy Row, banners hung from lampposts declare that the neighborhood “will NEVER accept a border on the Irish Sea!” – reference to the controls imposed on trade with the United Kingdom.
A similar flag was hoisted near a trash-strewn lot where villagers are storing firewood for the fires the night before July 12.
Loyalists saw Biden’s election as another setback, as it placed a staunch Catholic American of Irish descent in the White House, after four years in which Donald Trump maintained a rapprochement with Boris and expressed his support for the United Kingdom in its bitter divorce from the European Union.
Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, acknowledged that Biden’s contribution “could be important in relation to the protocol”.
The feeling of a withdrawn community was palpable on Sandy Row.
Merchant Paul McCann, 46, said builders were buying land on the outskirts of the neighborhood to build upscale hotels and apartment buildings. He said the city wanted to demolish the Boyne Bridge to create a transportation hub. The building is a predecessor of the one that William of Orange would have crossed on the way to the fateful battle against Jacques II. “They are trying to undo our history,” McCann says. “They want to reduce our loyalist communities more and more.”
Gordon Johnston, 28, is a community organizer. For him, it is a question of justice: the loyalists accepted the argument that the reimposition of a concrete border between the north and the south of Ireland would provoke violence; therefore, the same principle should apply to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. “It’s either one thing or the other,” he said. “Either we have no borders or there will be violence in the streets.”