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As a tense summer looms, Northern Ireland braces

Union Jacks this month outside a home in Sandy Row, a predominantly Protestant community in southern Belfast, the Northern Irish capital. Most residents of Sandy Row staunchly favor remaining in the United Kingdom.
Union Jacks this month outside a home in Sandy Row, a predominantly Protestant community in southern Belfast, the Northern Irish capital. Most residents of Sandy Row staunchly favor remaining in the United Kingdom.Paulo Nunes dos Santos/NYT

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The pandemic was hard on David Milliken, who sells drums, flags and pro-British banners from his brightly colored shop in Sandy Row, a loyalist stronghold in Belfast. But now, he said, “things have started to open up again,” especially since “the unrest is back.”

Two months ago, Sandy Row exploded in flames as masked demonstrators hurled stones and gasoline bombs at the police to protest what they call the “Brexit betrayal.” With the loyalist marching season kicking off next month, there are fears that the eruption of violence was only a warmup act.

Like others in Sandy Row, Milliken, 49, said he did not want a return to the Troubles, the bloody 30-year guerrilla war between Catholic nationalists, seeking unification with the Republic of Ireland, and predominantly Protestant loyalists and unionists, who want to stay in the United Kingdom.

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Yet Brexit, which loyalists say is driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, has inflamed sectarian passions to a degree unseen in decades. That’s good for Milliken, at least from a business perspective, since he supplies the loyalist bands that will march July 12 to commemorate William of Orange’s iconic military victory over a Catholic king, James II, in 1690.

Ordinarily, this noisy display of Protestant pride rankles Catholics. But this marching season, it is loyalists, not nationalists, who feel besieged and embittered. Milliken likened the plight of the loyalists — a particularly strident subset of Northern Ireland’s unionist population — to that of Irish republicans in the darkest days of the Troubles, when they faced the muzzles of British soldiers.

“It’s a mirror version of what happened with the other community,” he said. “Young people have seen these past few years that the threat of violence works. Everything is starting to turn on its head.”

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The specter of renewed violence poses a real threat to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian strife, in part by tamping down Northern Ireland’s identity politics. Brexit has reawakened those passions, and they could flare further next year if, as polls currently suggest, the main Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, becomes the biggest party in a field of divided, demoralized unionists.

U.S. President Joe Biden has already warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to do anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which was brokered with the help of another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Biden is expected to raise the issue again this week when he meets with Johnson before a Group of 7 summit meeting in Cornwall, southwestern England.

Biden is also mulling the appointment of a presidential envoy for Northern Ireland, a prospect that delights Sinn Fein and alarms loyalists, who fear that Biden will favor the nationalist cause.

The trigger for the recent riots was a decision by the police to allow a funeral for a reputed Irish Republican Army intelligence chief to go ahead, despite COVID-related restrictions on mass gatherings.

But the deeper cause is something called the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit legal construct that has left the North awkwardly straddling the trading systems of Britain and the European Union. The protocol grew out of a deal between London and Brussels to avoid resurrecting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The catch: It requires checks on goods flowing between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom, which carries both a commercial and psychological cost.

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“It has hit the community here like a ton of bricks that this is a separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom,” said David Campbell, chair of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents paramilitary groups that some say are stirring up unrest.

Campbell said that the paramilitaries actually tried to keep people off the streets. But he warned that unless the protocol was either scrapped or radically rewritten, violence would break out again during the marching season.

“The problem with violence on the unionist side,” he said, “is that it precipitates violence on the republican side.”

So far, the anger seems concentrated in unionist and loyalist areas. In Sandy Row, signs fluttering from lampposts declare that the neighborhood will “NEVER accept a border in the Irish Sea!” — a reference to the checks on trade with Britain. A similar banner hangs next to a garbage-strewn lot, where residents are stockpiling wood to burn in bonfires the night before July 12.

Loyalists viewed the election of Biden as another blow, since it put a devoted Irish American in the White House after four years in which President Donald Trump had cultivated Johnson and expressed sympathy for Britain in its bitter divorce with the European Union.

Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, acknowledged that “Biden could be important on the protocol.”

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“Britain is rather friendless outside the EU, so there is a limit to how far they can go against what the administration wants,” Powell said.

Until now, Johnson has taken a hard line in negotiations over the protocol. His senior aide, David Frost, says it is up to the EU to propose remedies to the disruptions of the border checks. If it does not, Britain could abandon the protocol — a move the EU says would breach the withdrawal agreement, although the bloc’s officials briefly threatened to scrap the protocol themselves in January.

Critics say that the Conservative government is winding up the loyalists with its hardball tactics. “There is a nexus between the loyalists and the Tory party,” Powell said. “The Tories are making Northern Ireland politics interesting in a way that we don’t want them to be, which is all about identity.”

Loyalists, for their part, feel orphaned by the political establishment. Many say they believe that the British government sold them out to strike its Brexit deal with Brussels. They are equally cynical about the Democratic Unionists, a Northern Irish party that supported Brexit and has now fallen into disarray because of the fierce blowback from Johnson's deal.

The party recently deposed its leader, Arlene Foster, and is squabbling over how to prepare for elections to the Northern Irish Assembly in May. That has opened the door to something once thought inconceivable: that Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party, with the right to appoint the first minister.

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With Sinn Fein’s vestigial links to the paramilitary Irish Republican Army and bedrock commitment to Irish unification, an Assembly led by the party could prove far more destabilizing to Northern Ireland’s delicate power-sharing arrangements than the post-Brexit trading rules, which are difficult to explain, let alone use as a rallying cry.

But Sinn Fein’s leaders say that, with a growing Catholic population and the fallout from Brexit, momentum is on their side. The unionist parties supported Brexit, while they opposed it. They view the campaign against the protocol as a futile effort that only lays bare the costs of leaving the European Union.

“You have a very stark choice,” Michelle O’Neill, party leader and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said in an interview. “Do you want to be part of inward-looking Brexit Britain or outward-looking inclusive Ireland?”

Another question is how the authorities will deal with further unrest. In April, the police moved carefully against the rock-throwing crowds, treating them as a local disturbance rather than a national security threat. But if the violence escalates, that could change.

Monica McWilliams, an academic and former politician who was involved in the 1998 peace negotiations, said, “Loyalist threats or violent actions against a border down the Irish Sea may no longer be seen as a domestic problem.”

But the greater challenge, she said, is reassuring unionists and loyalists at a time when politics and demographics are moving so clearly against them. While there is little appetite in the Irish Republic for a near-term referendum on unification, Sinn Fein is within striking distance of being in power on both sides of the border — a development that would put unification squarely on the agenda.

In Sandy Row, the sense of a community in retreat was palpable.

Paul McCann, 46, a shopkeeper and lifelong resident, noted how real estate developers were buying up blocks on the edge of the neighborhood to build hotels and upscale apartments. The city, he said, wants to demolish the Boyne Bridge — a predecessor of which William of Orange is said to have crossed on his way to that fateful battle with James II — to create a transportation hub.

“They’re trying to whitewash our history,” McCann said. “They’re making our loyalist communities smaller and smaller.”

For Gordon Johnston, a 28-year-old community organizer, it’s a matter of fairness: Loyalists accepted the argument that reimposing a hard border between the north and south of Ireland could provoke violence, so the same principle should apply to Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “You either have no borders or you have violence in the streets.”