Belfast has been rioting for days. After six years, the police in Northern Ireland had to use water cannons again against rioting people. The Rev. Stephan Arras in Ireland knows the uncertainties in the neighboring country.
Interviewer: The riots are believed to have been triggered by the funeral of a former member of the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary organization or a terrorist organization, depending on whom you ask. What are the reasons behind this escalation at the moment??
Stephan Arras (foreign pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran congregation in Dublin, Ireland): Yes, indeed, that is being cited as a trigger. This funeral already took place last year in June. That's about Bobby Storey, who has been an important figure in the IRA. As I said, this was a while ago and it's probably a stretch to use this as an occasion now.
The background was that at this funeral, I think in Northern Ireland only 30 people were allowed and it was pretty sure about 1.000 da. And there the opponents say that this is unfair treatment, because the people who went there for the funeral were not held accountable for breaking the corona protections.
Interviewer: And who are the rioters now?
Arras: The story, of course, has several facets. The rioters, if you look at the pictures, are teenagers. But behind that is basically a multi-layered dissatisfaction in Northern Ireland with the current situation. So if I remember correctly, it was like this: When Theresa May was still in government, she had already indicated that with Brexit you will have a kind of border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but with very few restrictions. At the time, Boris Johnson showed up in Belfast and was cheered big time. When he then said: No, there will be no restrictions at all. The United Kingdom will be united and there will be no borders or trade restrictions anywhere.
As you know, the treaty Boris Johnson signed with the EU after he became prime minister provides for a trade border in the Irish Sea, i.e. the EU's external border. And now many in Northern Ireland – those who actually want to stay together with Great Britain – feel betrayed. And this dissatisfaction is likely to be one of the deep roots of the current conflict that is flaring up again.
Interviewer: So it's more about the Brexit conflict than denominational tensions between Protestants and Catholics?
Arras: So my assessment is – I've known Northern Ireland for six years now – religion only plays a subordinate role now. So even when you talk to religious people, even pastors there, the real question is always: Do I feel Irish or do I feel British??
The people who call themselves unionists just want to go with Great Britain. By their family histories, they come mainly from Scotland or England. And those who are now Sinn Fein (Irish republican party, no. d. Red.) or call themselves republicans, that are just predominantly Catholics. But this is changing rapidly. There are more and more people, also in Northern Ireland, who no longer belong to any religion or are of a completely different religion or have immigrated, for whom the whole thing is simply strange.
Interviewer: Are your community members worried that the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the civil war in Ireland, might now be shaken again??
Arras: So this concern has actually been with us since it was heading for Brexit. After Britain opted for Brexit, it was clear, for one thing, in Northern Ireland more than 60 percent were in favor of the European Union. So this must be seen clearly. The majority did not want that. The concern was from the outset that this would again lead to unrest precisely at the predetermined breaking points. And that is exactly what we are experiencing right now. So that some would rather have a united Ireland and that is also the famous IRA, which has bombed for it.
On the other hand, there are those who say: We are British, we belong with them in the United Kingdom – and this tension remains. It used to be that the unionists had the great advantage on their side because Northern Ireland was doing much better economically than the Republic until the 1990s and maybe a little bit after that. But that has turned around. And now people are doing much better in the Republic than they are in Northern Ireland. This also leads to distortions and in the camp of the unionists, of course, this also makes a great uncertainty spread.
The interview was conducted by Tobias Fricke.