Nationalist Unrest in Belfast Underlines Shifting Opinions in Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland has rarely known true peace. Since its creation a century ago, the region has always been marked by conflict between groups loyal to the United Kingdom and groups that seek a united Ireland. The aftermath of the UK’s exit from the European Union has only further inflamed tensions that have lain dormant for decades.

Recent riots in Belfast have echoed the violence seen in the country in previous decades, with police pushing back against crowds of unruly locals. Even as the rioting continues in scattered pockets across the city nightly, polling of the country has suggested that there is more popular support now for Irish reunification than ever before.

Another Referendum?

Polling in Northern Ireland suggests that the people of the country want a referendum on whether or not they should reunite with the country that borders them to the south. Ireland and Northern Ireland were first separated a century ago, following the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Now, a full 100 years later, the country remains divided over whether it should reunite with the Republic of Ireland.

Notably, the Republic of Ireland is not a part of the UK and remains part of the EU. This has caused tensions within Northern Ireland. Efforts to keep a hard border from appearing between Northern Ireland and Ireland led to a bizarre rule involving shipments from between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This has led to many people in Northern Ireland feeling as though the UK has betrayed them by putting a hard border across the Irish Sea.

Not Just Brexit

Politicians within Northern Ireland have suggested that there is more fueling the unrest than just dissatisfaction with Brexit. Income inequality in Belfast has also been blamed, with some of the poorest people in the country living less than a mile from some of the wealthiest people in the country.

“And that is an issue because you clearly cannot encourage people to aim for something better if they feel at the moment, ‘I don’t have anything.’” Says Sorcha Eastwood, an Alliance Party councilor. “And there’s a level and an element of hopelessness and despair creeping into some of these communities that they’ve never actually quite been able to shift and shake off and get rid of.”

Now What?

Northern Ireland is in a bizarre position, according to international commentators. On the one hand, a sizable portion of the population supports reunification. On the other hand, a bigger portion of the population wants to remain a part of the UK. However, the “gray area” of undecided respondents in polling results indicates that the country is currently in a state of limbo.

As for what happens next, the idea that the country could reunify sounds as unbelievable as the UK leaving the EU sounded in 2015.