Wednesday, October 27News That Matters

Petrol bombs won’t demolish a border in the Irish Sea – or turn back the tide of Brexit

“Why do we always think petrol bombs will solve the problem?”

That’s the sort of question that keeps an Ireland correspondent awake at night.

It came in a message from a cousin in America: “The Scots want independence and they don’t throw petrol bombs.

“There must be thousands of Brits not happy about Brexit and they don’t throw petrol bombs. Why do we always think petrol bombs will solve the problem?”

By “we”, she meant the Northern Irish. I can assure you she has never thrown a petrol bomb in her life.

Loyalist protesters setting fires during unrest on Lanark Way in Belfast earlier this month
Image: Loyalist protesters setting fires during unrest on Lanark Way earlier this month

The petrol bomb, or Molotov cocktail to use its proper title, has been the Northern Ireland rioter’s weapon of choice for generations.

A breakable bottle containing flammable liquid, with a cloth rag protruding from the top to operate as a wick, it is a crude, incendiary device.

In the long, hot summer of 1997, I reported from one city in Northern Ireland where 700 petrol bombs were thrown at police lines in one night.

A youth throws a petrol bomb at some traffic lights on the Springfield road, during further unrest in Belfast. Picture date: Thursday April 8, 2021.
Image: A youth throwing a petrol bomb on Springfield Road

In recent weeks, they appeared again when Loyalist and Nationalist youths clashed at the ironically named “peace line”, an interface in west Belfast.

They were devised during the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) but earned their name during the Winter War (1939-40).

In his propaganda broadcasts, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vycheslav Molotov claimed bombing missions over Finland were airborne humanitarian aid missions.

The Finns decided to reciprocate, complimenting “Molotov’s bread baskets” with what came to be known as the “Molotov cocktail”.

Often used in civilian uprisings around the world, more for symbolism than substance as a weapon, they have been described as “the voice of the unheard”.

A firefighter putting out a fire on a JCB digger set alight near Loyalist Nelson Drive Estate in Co. Londonderry
Image: A firefighter puts out a fire on a JCB digger set alight near Loyalist Nelson Drive Estate in Co. Londonderry

Loyalists, those who deem themselves loyal to the British Crown, feel no one is listening to them and while most of their protests have been peaceful, the Brexit fallout has provided context for disorder.

Fuming about the Protocol that established a trade border in the Irish Sea, they’re flailing around for someone to blame in Dublin, Brussels and even Washington.

It is difficult to make your voice heard without conceding it was your own prime minister who negotiated and imposed this border, despite repeatedly promising not do so.

More baffling still is the fact that some in the Democratic Unionist Party, a fierce critic of British prime ministers until it held the balance of power in Westminster for two years, actually trusted Boris Johnson with Northern Ireland.

A blind man on a galloping horse could see that “Brexit means Brexit” did not include the clause “unless Northern Ireland becomes the price we have to pay for it”.

With Republicans seizing the opportunity to step up the debate on Irish unity, Loyalists find themselves in a perfect storm with the constitutional question of Northern Ireland’s future at the centre of it.

In his new book, Political Purgatory, Brian Rowan writes: “The Union is already different as a result of Brexit and the sea border and there are many questions.

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“Who is best placed to sell the benefits of the Union? Surely not those who were loudest in the Brexit debate and who have done so much damage to that cause.”

The Protocol has reaffirmed Unionism’s worst fears that Northern Ireland is the unwanted child of the British government.

How keen the Irish electorate is to adopt the difficult child that is “the North” remains to be seen.

But any Loyalist who thinks petrol bombing police lines will solve their problem has a very short memory.

Petrol bombs didn’t solve the parades crisis in the mid-90s or restore the Union flag to Belfast City Hall, despite a year of serious rioting in 2013.

Police clash with loyalist protesters during further unrest on the Shankill Road in Belfast earlier this month
Image: Police clashed with loyalist protesters on the Shankill Road earlier this month

Northern Ireland rioters should note that the Molotov cocktail didn’t win the Winter War for Finland either – it ended with them conceding 11% of their territory.

Unionism doesn’t hold the sway it once did but needs to trust itself – and not the British government – to negotiate its future by engaging in pragmatic politics.

Indeed, politicians on both sides need to stop dancing to the tune of those who use violence, or ever did, and start listening to the majority who voted for peace.

Police use water cannon to disperse rioters in Belfast earlier this month
Image: Police used water cannon to disperse rioters in Belfast earlier this month

Republicans have made huge strides electorally since they largely abandoned “the Armalite” for the ballot box.

To some extent, Unionists too have learned from previous PR disasters that were the result of calling people onto the streets and are mounting their challenge in the courtroom.

To some extent, Unionists too have learned from previous PR disasters that were the result of calling people onto the streets and are mounting their challenge in the courtroom

Unionist parties have secured a judicial review of the Protocol on the basis that it breaches the principal of consent at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement rather than protects it.

Arguments made in the courtroom are much more credible than petrol bombs made in the backstreets of Belfast.

But angry talk from Unionists risks lighting the wick, as does Boris Johnson making promises to change the Protocol – more promises he can’t keep without reneging on an internal agreement.

For weeks, his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, point-blank denied that the checks amounted to a trade border in the Irish Sea.

He was still denying it when he informed the House of Commons that the British government was unilaterally extending the grace period before more checks are required.

Why would you need to extend the grace period if the border in the Irish Sea – between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – didn’t exist?

That kind of bluff and double-bluff won’t wash in a place where the electorate is politically astute.

It also runs the risk of inadvertently inflaming tension, allowing sinister elements to send teenagers out to riot, claiming they’ve been betrayed again.

Former prime minister Tony Blair (R), US Senator George Mitchell (C) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (L) smiling after signing the Good Friday agreement
Image: Prime minister Tony Blair (R), US Senator George Mitchell (C) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (L) smiling after signing the Good Friday agreement in 1998

Sadly, this remains a divided society and a new generation has not been persuaded that politics is a better option than violence.

They don’t believe petrol bombs will solve the problem. They’re just filling a political vacuum with flames.

Twenty-three years after the Good Friday Agreement, that’s a damning indictment of political leadership.