N. Ireland riots reflect breakup fears?

N. Ireland riots reflect breakup fears?

The ongoing six-week flag riots by pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland have been billed as the most serious episode of violence since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a threat to the peace accord.

Less highlighted aspects of the treaty, however, suggest the riots are fueled by pro-British unionists’ fears that they are losing their majority in Northern Ireland leading to the province ceasing to be part of Britain based on the very same accord.

Three people were arrested on Saturday after several hundred loyalist protesters took to the streets outside the City Hall in the capital Belfast to voice their outrage against the new flag arrangements over the building.

It was the 37th day of riots that have so far left more than 100 police officers injured along with dozens of protesters and bystanders and have seen officers resort to plastic rounds and water cannons to contain the mobs.

The crisis started after local councilors decided on December 3, 2012 that the British flag should be flying over the Belfast City Hall only for 17 designated days, as it is the norm across Britain, instead of all year round, which was the former norm.

The decision was made after the nationalists, who currently hold 24 seats on the council, could finally outdo their unionist counterparts, who number 21 on the council, and get a yes vote to remove the 107-year-old flag tradition.

The vote also reflected the changing political and demographical landscape of Northern Ireland.

As nationalists now dominate the council, the scales of the Northern Irish population are also tipping in favor of the mostly Catholic anti-British republicans; and that seems to be the sticky point for the pro-British rioters.

The 2011 census found that the Northern Irish population listing themselves as Protestant or brought up Protestant has plunged by five percent to stand at 48 percent since 2001, while the number has grown by one percent to 45 percent for Catholics.

This comes as estimates show Catholics, who are also growing rapidly in Belfast, could overtake Protestants in numbers in the next decades.

That points to the mostly Protestant republicans’ worst fears, rooted exactly in the Good Friday Agreement 15 years ago.

The accord stipulated that that Northern Ireland would remain part of Britain until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise.

It added, should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.

Indeed, the agreement ruled that if a majority of Catholics seeking separation from Britain form in Northern Ireland and vote for re-union with the Republic of Ireland, Britain is obliged to approve it.

The flag decision is apparently a strong indicator that the Protestants, who have always prided themselves as ‘the majority’, are now losing to pro-independence Catholics, not just in numbers but a territory they say should remain British.

That explains the persisting riots that in turn reflect unionists’ alarm at the prospect of a united Ireland.