Foreign Policy

Northern Eire Avenue Violence Continues

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Northern Ireland violence continues for seventh night running, EU-Turkey tensions increase over Ursula von der Leyen snub, and Germany warns Russia over a troop build-up at the Ukraine border.

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Violence Flares in Northern Ireland

Street violence in Northern Ireland continued for a seventh successive night on Thursday, as the United States joined international calls for calm. Over 50 members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland have been injured in the violence.

Riots, mostly involving young people, have taken place across Northern Ireland this week, and until last night were mostly confined to pro-British loyalist neighborhoods. On Thursday, police deployed water cannons against rioters in the predominantly Irish nationalist Springfield Road area of West Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s elected leaders have blamed organized criminal gangs for stoking the violence, which comes against a backdrop of months-long COVID-19 restrictions and increasing tensions related to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status.

Pro-British Unionists, who largely voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 vote, have expressed anger over the deal between the United Kingdom and the EU that creates what they regard as an invisible border in the Irish Sea between the island of Britain and the island of Ireland—forcing customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from other parts of the United Kingdom. They fear that border could become permanent, bringing them a step closer to a full severance from Britain and a new status as a minority in a united Irish state.

Conservative calculus. Despite the fact that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson no longer has to rely on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, following the sweeping Conservative election victory of 2019, he still has reasons to keep Downing Street’s focus on Northern Ireland. U.S. President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi have both made the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement a key factor in any future U.S.-U.K. trade deal.

Peace, 23 years on. Although Brexit has undoubtedly raised tensions, it doesn’t explain the whole story. Children born the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed will mark their 23rd birthdays this Saturday. As Jonny Byrne, a senior lecturer at Ulster University whose research includes the topic of youth participation in political violence, told Foreign Policy, political leaders have not done enough in the past two decades to address the hard questions around segregation and identity that remained once paramilitary violence ceased.

Stubborn segregation. As Byrne points out, life in Northern Ireland, especially among the working class, is still deeply divided; 97 percent of social housing in Belfast is segregated between Catholics and Protestants. Less than 8 percent of young people go to integrated schools. And in a 2019 poll, 58 percent of those in 18-34 age group said they had few or no friends on the other side of the sectarian divide.

For Byrne, the years since the peace deal was signed have been squandered. “At the end of the day, the Good Friday Agreement gave us a roadmap to build a new society. And we didn’t build a new society,” he argues.

What We’re Following Today

Ukraine anxiety. In a phone call on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Russian President Vladimir Putin to scale down Russia’s military presence on its border with Ukraine, where Moscow has recently massed an unusual number of troops, alarming NATO and sparking panic among Western leaders.

“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” the German government said in a statement. In turn, Putin accused Ukraine of “provocative actions,” while Russia has said that its troops are simply on the defensive. Across the Atlantic, Washington has also become increasingly worried about Russia’s border aggressions. “These are all deeply concerning signs,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has flown to the eastern frontline to boost morale among soldiers, just two days after he urged NATO to find a path for Ukraine to join the alliance—a move that Moscow rejected at once, warning that it could escalate tensions along the border.

EU-Turkey tensions. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi labeled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a dictator while discussing the Turkish government’s very public snub of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a meeting in Istanbul earlier this week.

In a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel and the Turkish President, von der Leyen was relegated to a sofa along with the Turkish foreign minister while Erdogan and Michel sat together in prepared chairs—a break from previous protocol. “With these, let’s call them what they are—dictators—with whom one nonetheless has to coordinate, one has to be frank when expressing different visions and opinions,” Draghi said. Turkey has pushed back against accusations of a sexist snub, saying that the seating was arranged according to the EU’s demands.

Samoa votes. Samoans go to the polls today in legislative elections that pose a rare challenge for the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), in government for the last 40 years. The newly formed FAST coalition, the country’s first formal opposition in the past five years, has emerged pledging to fight corruption and nepotism. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has been victorious in each election for the past 23 years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in the world.

Biden’s border problem. Just under 19,000 unaccompanied children crossed the Mexican border into the United States during the month of March, the highest figure on record. Though the number of migrants traveling to the United States increased during the Trump administration’s final year in office, the record number coincides with a Biden administration decision to exempt children from a pandemic-related order that gives U.S. officials powers to immediately expel migrants without offering asylum.

Election weekend. Important elections take place in both Latin America and Africa this Sunday. Peru holds presidential and parliamentary elections, where voters will seek to put an end to the turmoil experienced in November, when the country had three presidents in the space of a week.

Ecuador holds a presidential runoff with left-wing economist Andrés Arauz, the first-round winner, facing conservative banker Guillermo Lasso.

Chad holds its presidential election, with incumbent Idriss Déby running for a sixth consecutive term. Benin also holds a presidential election, with incumbent Patrice Talon seeking a second term.

Tim Hirschel-Burns writes in Foreign Policy that a likely Talon win in Benin would confirm the country’s “slide into autocracy, bringing three decades of democratic success to an end.”

A British man is searching for two long lost friends who shipped him across the world in a wooden crate in 1965.

Then-19-year-old Brian Robson came to Australia on a work program in 1964 before quickly becoming homesick. Unable to afford a flight home, he and the two friends came up with a scheme to ship Robson to London in a crate. He was packed in with nothing more than with a flashlight, a bottle of water, a small suitcase, a pillow, an empty bottle (“for obvious reasons”) and a hammer to break out.

The operation quickly went awry (in more ways that can fit in this summary). Robson endured five days being shuttled from airport to airport, eventually ending up thousands of miles from his destination, in Los Angeles. After security personnel decided he was not a threat, he was then flown home first class, for free, by Pan American Airlines.

Robson, who has written a book about his adventure, is now seeking to reconnect with the friends that sent him on his way. He can only recall their first names and their Irish nationality; the rest is lost to time. “I’d love to find them again,” he told CBC radio.


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