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Loyalist mum: The Bobby Storey decision was the spark that lit the tinderbox this week

Emma Shaw, a member of the East Belfast community, discusses the gradual building of tensions that have lead to this week of violence.

Emma Shaw

THE VIOLENCE OF the last several nights across Northern Ireland has caused some of us who are old enough to recall the dark days of the past.f

The difference is that it is not grown men on the streets hurling petrol bombs at buses or burning out cars, it is young people, born post-Good Friday Agreement with some as young as 13.

While no one wishes to see a return to the violence that plagued us during the ‘Troubles’ we must understand the frustration of those within grassroots loyalism.

Around the Brexit and border debates, we had the constant rhetoric from Sinn Féin and then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warning of a perceived threat of violence in Northern Ireland were a border to return.

I believe, this rhetoric gave some young people the idea that violence is how you achieve your objectives.

The disillusionment that is felt within the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) community is not recent or new. I am not here to rehash the results of Brexit, but this recent violence has its roots within it.

Brexit effects

The question on the Brexit ballot paper was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, there were two options on the paper, leave or remain.

There was no plan or indication of what ‘leave’ would look like and there certainly was not any forethought of the impact that it would have on Northern Ireland.

There also was not any consideration of what a ‘majority’ should look like and as we are all aware the results were not what the government had planned for.

The debate that trundled on for years while politicians floundered, dealing with roadblock after roadblock from the EU on Brexit put Northern Ireland in the crossfires of a power struggle between the EU and the UK government.

Academics produced articles and reports on the impact of any hard border on the island, some tried to offer alternative solutions or some kind of compromise.

The line in the sand around Brexit for members of the PUL community was NI being treated differently from the rest of the UK.

For those unfamiliar with PUL principles, the most simplified version is that we want a continued union between NI and the UK. The reasons behind this range from identity, culture, and economic beliefs that are outside the scope of this article.

Not every unionist or loyalist that I know voted for Brexit, I know many who voted to Remain as they saw the potential for it to impact the Union. However, once the democratic vote was cast, they respected the Leave vote, even while not agreeing with it. I think it is fair to say that people I know felt frustrated with the lack of understanding about Northern Ireland and its unique positioning within the UK.

I don’t think anyone I know would disagree with me saying that not only do we feel forgotten about in Northern Ireland, but we are also only ever an afterthought – Brexit made this abundantly clear.

After Theresa May was ousted as head of the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson gained power, there was already significant dissatisfaction within grassroots loyalism, not only at the lack of any movement on Brexit but also with NI being used as political cannon fodder.

During the election campaigns in December 2019, I assisted local communities with ensuring residents were registered to vote and encouraging them to use their democratic voice.

Many people I spoke with had never voted for the DUP before but indicated that they thought it was important that we had strong representation in Westminster.

Those familiar with politics will recall that the DUP played a key role in enabling former PM Theresa May with her ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement. However, the Tory government did not need to rely on them this time around and they achieved an overwhelming majority.

The initial impact of Brexit was not felt economically until more recently. People in Northern Ireland are having difficulties with deliveries from England. Businesses have been bogged down with significant paperwork, causing operational difficulties.

The Northern Ireland economy has been growing for decades, we attract our fair share of businesses, but our young people continue to move to England or Scotland for University and then never returning home, some have dubbed this ‘the brain drain’.

Northern Ireland has boundless opportunities to be a global player, but we must invest in our young people, not every child has access to the same resources or education, and this has an impact on working-class communities.

In terms of a border, I am not convinced that there cannot be a workable solution. There are plenty of other countries that share borders, look at the United States and Mexico or Canada, yes there may be a need for minor infrastructure but the threat of violence has pushed the border issue internally.

A fateful funeral

In March 2020 the world came to a grinding halt with the Covid-19 pandemic. The political focus shifted to management of the crisis and we were all told to stay home to stay safe.

Businesses shut and community groups and representatives came together across the province to help support the vulnerable members of society, whether delivering warm meals, weekly shopping or collecting prescriptions, communities rallied. For the most part, ordinary people followed the health minister’s guidance.

Fast forward to June of last year when thousands of nationalists and republicans took to the streets for Bobby Storey’s funeral.

Reports of mourners being turned away from Roselawn cemetery sparked frustration within the PUL community: why have so many families been unable to give their loved ones the send off they wanted yet Sinn Féin could orchestrate what is viewed by many as a show of strength?

Uproar ensued, and there was an investigation that carried on with more details coming to light about the operational oversight by Sinn Féin.

Finally, the PPS released a statement outlining that there would be no prosecutions for the 24 senior Sinn Féin leadership who were identified as attending the funeral, breaking the very same regulations that they preached week in, week out to the general public.

The outrage that ensued has lit the tinderbox that was already fragile and waiting for the spark.

Let me be clear, I do not condone the violence that is rampant across our ‘wee’ country, but when the PUL community is continuously let down by political leadership, including Boris Johnson. It was only a matter of time before tensions erupted.

Like many other working-class ordinary people across Northern Ireland, I want to see a stable and prosperous country. As a good friend of mine said recently, our country is working, it is our government that is not.

The DUP leadership sit in their ivory towers and are severely out of touch with grassroots PUL sentiment.

The DUP is not representative of my views and Arlene Foster’s tweets are misguided. They fall on deaf ears, no one trusts the words that come out of her mouth. Though she is not alone in that sense.

Other political figures such as Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly are just as careless, in my view. Michelle O’Neill recently tweeted – while these violent protests are ongoing – calling for a vote on Irish Unity.

Gerry Kelly tweeted a provocative statement ‘Easter 1916 – The beginning of the end for the British Empire. Easter 2021 – The End Game’. You cannot call for calm and for leaders to ‘dial down the rhetoric’ when you engage in these type of inflammatory statements.

Good Friday Agreement

It is time for reform, the Good Friday Agreement is not an agreement that is written in stone, it can and should be amended. We cannot have convicted terrorists sitting in government over the same community that they literally tried to blow up.

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While that may have been viewed as acceptable to facilitate the early years of the Belfast Agreement, that is no longer a palatable option.

How can you expect people to trust and believe in government when it is rife with convicted terrorists? My statement applies to all political parties, it is hurtful to communities to see those that once sought to do them harm govern over them.

We as a people deserve better, we deserve to have representatives in power that share the ambitions of wanting to make Northern Ireland successful and benefiting all its citizens.

Regardless of what side of the political divide you sit on there must be a dialogue about reform with the Belfast Agreement, we must continue the work of our predecessors who had a vision of our ‘wee’ country and were committed to partnership, equality, and mutual respect.

Those currently in Stormont have consistently shown that they are incapable of doing the job they were elected to do – come the next elections, some will be in for a rude awakening.

Emma Shaw is a member of the East Belfast community.

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