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The ghosts of Northern Ireland’s troubles are back.  What is happening?

Adding to the sectarian hotspots of the world, the British territory of Northern Ireland has returned to the news, its relative calm punctuated by violent riots among groups that made peace 23 years ago.

The reasons for the rupture are linked to Britain’s exit from the European Union and the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic. But they have demonstrated the fuel power of the old feuds between a largely Catholic part that wants the territory to be part of Ireland, and a predominantly Protestant part that wants to remain part of Britain.

For more than a week, protests descended into chaos on the streets of Belfast, the capital, and other parts of Northern Ireland, leaving many injured. Rioters as young as 13 threw gasoline bombs at police and set buses on fire. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin have both expressed deep concern.

“Boris Johnson is grappling with an issue that is too close to home for comfort: the worst violence on the streets of Northern Ireland in many years,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director Europe of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy firm. e-mail to customers. The underlying causes, Mr. Rahman said, “are unlikely to be resolved quickly.”

Here’s a look at Northern Ireland and the stakes of its violent turn.

Northern Ireland is a 5,400 square mile area of ​​approximately two million people under British sovereignty in the northeastern part of the island of Ireland, bordered to the south and west by the Republic of Ireland and to the east by the Irish Sea, which separates it from the rest of Great Britain.

Ireland became autonomous almost 100 years ago after centuries of British rule. But the treaty which established autonomy for most of the island, after several years of bitter struggle following the First World War, also contained an opt-out for the area with the greatest concentration of Protestants, whose leaders strongly opposed the prospect of being part of a predominantly Catholic state. This northern region remained part of Britain, with a police force and local government dominated for decades by Protestants.

The division of Ireland became the source of one of the most violent and enduring sectarian conflicts of the 20th century, pitting Catholics and groups opposed to British rule, including the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, against the Protestants and pro-British forces, including loyalist militant groups. Belfast, a former epicenter of shipbuilding and birthplace of the Titanic, has become one of the “four Bs” – joining Beirut, Baghdad and Bosnia in the pantheon of the world’s most perilous places. Around 3,600 people have died in decades of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the “Troubles”.

An agreement known as the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement or simply the Agreement, was concluded on April 10, 1998 by the British government, the Irish government and the political parties of Northern Ireland. He created a governing body for the territory designed to ensure the sharing of power between Protestants and Catholics, and bodies to facilitate cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It called on former adversaries to disarm and peacefully settle their differences. It also allowed residents of Northern Ireland to obtain Irish citizenship or dual Irish-British citizenship.

Years of relative peace followed. Once considered a no-go area for tourists, Northern Ireland has become a draw. Its appeal was further heightened by the creators of “Game of Thrones,” the HBO series, who used its stunning and diverse landscapes as a stage. The show’s debut in April 2011 put “Northern Ireland on the map,” said The Derry Journal, a newspaper in Northern Ireland’s second largest city.

Britain’s departure from the European Union, known as Brexit, upset the political balance in Northern Ireland, threatening the foundations of the Good Friday deal.

Ireland remains a member country of the European Union and Brexit has raised the prospect of new controls at its hitherto unrestricted land border with Northern Ireland, hampering the free movement of people and goods and putting in anger those who would like to see the island unified.

But the workarounds to keep that border open have created new problems in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, disrupting supplies to stores in the territory and upsetting those in Northern Ireland who consider themselves British. Resentment in pro-British Protestant areas has grown and has contributed to the most recent outbreaks of violence, raising fears of reprisals from Catholic communities.

Another source of tension has been a recent police decision not to prosecute the crowds of mourners who gathered at the funeral last June for Bobby Storey, an Irish Republican Army commander, despite the ban. mass gatherings due to the pandemic. Among those in mourning were the leaders of Sinn Fein, a political party linked to the IRA that has become the main party of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

While violence is not expected to reach the levels seen during the years of the Troubles, when British forces were deployed to Northern Ireland, leaders on all sides fear the start of a cycle of revenge attacks.

The plight of Northern Ireland has now become a particularly sensitive issue for Mr Johnson’s government. He does not want to lose the support of Protestants in Northern Ireland who say they feel betrayed and disenfranchised. And any deepening of divisions between Northern Ireland and Ireland could galvanize support for Irish unification, which some polls have already increased since Brexit.

For now, political leaders from all sides insist on the need to honor the 1998 Belfast Accord, reminding young people of Northern Ireland how it has transformed their lives. Mr Martin, Irish Prime Minister, put it this way in a speech on Saturday, the anniversary of the agreement: “We owe it to the generation of the agreement and indeed to future generations not to return to this place. dark with sectarian killings and political discord. “

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