Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘betrayal’ is factor behind Northern Ireland violence, Stormont minister says

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·4-min read
Naomi Long attacked Boris Johnson's Brexit 'betrayal' amid the Northern Ireland violence. (Getty Images/Northern Ireland Assembly)
Naomi Long attacked Boris Johnson's Brexit 'betrayal' amid the Northern Ireland violence. (Getty Images/Northern Ireland Assembly)

Boris Johnson’s Brexit “betrayal” is one of the factors behind the violence in Northern Ireland, a Stormont minister has said.

In a thinly-veiled attack on the prime minister – who was a lead campaigner for the UK’s departure from the EU in the 2016 referendum and the man who “got Brexit done” last year – Northern Ireland justice minister Naomi Long said his Brexit deal has caused “hurt and instability”.

The country has now seen several nights of disorder in which dozens of police officers have been injured.

While there are thought to be a combination of factors behind the violence, there have been increasing political tensions over the trade border in the Irish Sea caused by Johnson’s Brexit agreements with Brussels.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 07:  Fire fed by petrol burns as youths clashed c on April 7, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Violence broke out after a Loyalist protest, with youths attacking police officers and petrol-bombing a bus. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Fire burns after clashes at a 'peace wall' in Belfast on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
PSNI officers and Land Rovers on the nationalist side of the Springfield Road in Belfast after dispersing people from the area, following further unrest. Picture date: Wednesday April 7, 2021.
A row of police vans and officers on the nationalist side of Springfield Road in Belfast on Wednesday night. (PA)

Long focused on this as she opened a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Thursday.

She said: “There are many theories as to why this violence has erupted and whilst there may be an element of truth in each of them, there is and can be no excuse or justification for what has taken place. Our condemnation of such violence must be unequivocal.”

She then turned her attention to Brexit and Johnson, though she didn’t mention the PM’s name.

“We have all been aware of the simmering tensions in parts of our community over the outworkings of Brexit for some months. 

"Most of us, including those who oppose Brexit, have some sympathy for those people out there who feel betrayed. They were promised sunlit uplands but that was a fantasy. It was never how Brexit would end.

“Those in government knew that but were more interested in their own ascent to power than the hurt and instability their deception would cause here in Northern Ireland.”

Watch: Factors behind Northern Ireland disorder

Former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain also said people feel "betrayed" by Johnson's Brexit deal, telling Sky News the PM "did not tell it straight" that businesses would be "strangled... with a mountain of paperwork and red tape".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, meanwhile, has demanded Johnson “steps up” over the issue.

During a campaign visit to Bristol, Starmer said there is “no justification for this violence”, though he acknowledged “concerns in Northern Ireland about Brexit, there are concerns about the promises that the prime minister made which haven’t been kept”.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 08: A man walks past a burnt down bus on April 8, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Violence broke out after a Loyalist protest took place in front of the gates of the peace line at the Springfield Road/ Lanark Way Interface. Youths attacked police officers and petrol bombed a bus.  (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
A man walks past a burnt down bus in Belfast on Thursday. (Getty Images)
LARNE, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 06: Police come under attack from fireworks and rocks as they unblock the main route into Larne town and harbour as Loyalists hold an anti Northern Ireland Protocol protest against the so called Irish Sea border on April 6, 2021 in Larne, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Police come under attack from fireworks and rocks in Larne, Northern Ireland, on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

He called on Johnson to “step up, show leadership, convene all-party talks and talk to the government of Ireland as well, and resolve this with pragmatic political solutions”.

Brandon Lewis, Johnson’s Northern Ireland secretary, flew to Belfast on Thursday afternoon. Speaking at a press conference at Stormont House, he acknowledged the problems the Northern Ireland Protocol has caused while condemning the disorder.

“I’ll be the first to acknowledge over the first few months of the year there were real issues around how the protocol has landed for people, both as consumers and those in the loyalist and unionist community.

“The way to deal with these things is through a democratic and diplomatic, political process. There is no legitimisation of violence to deal with any of those issues."

Police fallout continues

As the disorder unfolds, Brexit is not the only factor behind the tensions. 

The fallout is continuing from the police’s handling of a mass republican funeral that took place during coronavirus restrictions last year.

All four main unionist parties are continuing to call for PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne to quit over how his force dealt with the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last year.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill speaks alongside Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty during the funeral of senior Irish Republican and former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)
Deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill at the funeral of Bobby Storey. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Unionists are furious at a decision by prosecutors not to take action against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, for attending the funeral – when other people would have been missing the funerals of their loved ones due to the restrictions.

The decision was partly related to the fact police engaged with the organisers before the event that drew 2,000 people on to the streets.

Read more:

Loyalist anger at post-Brexit trade rules among factors in disorder

Confidence in police in NI at all-time low after Storey funeral – Arlene Foster (from 31 March)

Wednesday night saw a bus hijacked and set on fire, a press photographer assaulted and clashes between loyalists and nationalists at a peace line street that links Shankill Road with Springfield Road in west Belfast.

Additional reporting by PA Media.