British Ministers Rebuff Dublin Pleas for Emergency Summit on Northern Ireland

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney is expected to press his British counterpart, Dominic Rabb, this week during a meeting in London to convene an emergency British-Irish intergovernmental conference to discuss a recent outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. But British ministers are reluctant. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons on Tuesday that the British government would “look for an appropriate time for a future meeting” but did not commit to do so as a matter of urgency, despite a growing clamor in the British Parliament for a summit, which would include Northern Irish politicians. Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland deny they have been behind an eruption of street violence in the British-ruled province, but they have warned that politicians in London, Dublin and Brussels are playing with fire, saying they underestimate the impact Brexit is having on the sectarian balance. The sustained nature of rioting in largely Protestant neighborhoods of Belfast and Londonderry is prompting rising alarm in government circles in Dublin and London, with fears mounting the province risks being dragged back into its dark past of sectarian violence between pro-British, mainly Protestant Unionists and mostly Catholic Irish nationalists. Loyalists are seen as Unionist paramilitaries. FILE – Rioters throw burning bottles at the police on the Springfield Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 8, 2021.The rioting has been among the worst seen since the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement was struck in April 1998, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Many politicians and analysts agree that fury over the Brexit deal — which has left Northern Ireland inside the European Union’s single market and customs union, resulting in a regulatory “sea border” between it and the United Kingdom mainland — is the source of the rioting. Customs inspections are required under the Brexit agreement between London and Brussels on goods and agricultural produce to ensure compliance with EU standards. The imposition of a sea border meant a land border between the two halves of Ireland could be avoided, which would have risked sparking a violent reaction from nationalists and the paramilitary Provisional IRA. The reverse has happened — an outcome that some Unionists warned was likely. FILE – Graffiti in a loyalist area of south Belfast, Northern Ireland, against an Irish sea border is seen Feb. 2, 2021.Authorities say more than 90 police officers have been injured in the rioting, including 14 on Friday when youngsters lobbed bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs. The riots in Loyalist strongholds also have involved sectarian clashes along a peace wall in west Belfast with children as young as 13 years old participating. A burning car Monday was placed on the tracks of the Londonderry-to-Belfast rail-line. The engineer managed to bring her train to a standstill to avoid a collision. The unrest has cooled in recent days, but observers fear it will flare again. FILE – Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin speaks to the media in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 16, 2020.Micheál Martin, the Irish prime minister, has been urging his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, to agree to the intergovernmental talks, according to Irish officials. Martin has also asked the White House to lobby for an emergency summit, insisting Northern Ireland must not be allowed to “spiral back to that dark place of sectarian murders and political discord.” U.S. President Joe Biden has echoed the appeal for calm. Northern Ireland’s Unionists worry the Brexit deal Johnson struck with Brussels will in effect start peeling the province away from the U.K., and they say it affects their cultural identity. Analysts are concerned it will inexorably lead to reunification of the island of Ireland and feed into a psyche of political grievance. Reaction to the Brexit trading arrangements has revealed how fragile peace in Northern Ireland remains, according to observers. Some blame politicians in London and Belfast for neglecting to build on the Good Friday Agreement and do more to dilute the province’s toxic sectarianism. The presence of youngsters in the rioting is especially worrying, they say. “More than 600,000 young people have been born in Northern Ireland since the Belfast Agreement was signed,” lamented Abby Wallace this week in the Irish Times, using another term for the Good Friday Agreement. “But under the broad umbrella of the ‘peace generation,’ not all young people have felt this peace in the same way. This is because our leaders have failed to build on the Belfast Agreement in a way which would allow all of Northern Ireland’s youth to feel that we are no longer living in the past. “More than 90 percent of Northern Ireland’s young people are still educated in segregated schools,” noted Wallace, a radio journalist and postgraduate politics student at Belfast’s Queen’s University. FILE – Pro-Union Loyalists demonstrate against the Northern Ireland Protocol implemented following Brexit, on the road leading to the Port of Larne in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, April 6, 2021.Northern Ireland’s police chief says there is no evidence rioting has been sanctioned by Loyalist leaders. “We feel that there may be some people who could have connections to proscribed organizations, who have been present at the scenes of violence,” he said, but added in a statement that “we don’t believe it’s been sanctioned and organized by proscribed organizations.” Others are less sure. Irish news outlets have reported that much of the trouble has been in neighborhoods where criminal gangs and drug traffickers linked to Loyalist paramilitaries have a strong presence. The rioting came after a recent police crackdown on crime in some Loyalist areas. “The motivations of the rioters appear to be an inchoate mix of criminal aggression and political grievance, their anger stoked by the manipulations of drug gangs and a climate of instability, all underlaid by decades of community neglect,” the Irish Times newspaper said in an editorial. FILE – A police officer walks behind a police vehicle with flames leaping up after violence broke out in Newtownabbey, north of Belfast, in Northern Ireland, April 3, 2021.British officials say the unrest is being fueled by several factors — among them the impact of Brexit, which Lewis told the British Parliament overlaps “with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance and comes at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.” The poisonous brew of disillusionment got an added ingredient last month when Northern Ireland officials declined to prosecute politicians from Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, for attending the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey, despite the funeral breaking pandemic restrictions. “To date there has been a spectacular collective failure to understand properly the scale and nature of unionist and loyalist anger,” Loyalist paramilitaries said in a joint statement last week. “Indeed, there is a complete failure to understand loyalists as people and equal citizens.” British and EU officials are now scrambling to see if they can tweak the trading arrangements to make them less intrusive, and they say they are making progress. But it remains unclear whether that will be a long-term cure. Sinn Fein, which always saw the Good Friday Agreement as a steppingstone to eventual Irish reunification, is pushing for a so-called border poll on the future of the British-ruled province, to the increasing frustration of Northern Ireland’s Unionists.