EXPERTS have warned there is a “battle against time” to deal with rising tensions in Northern Ireland over the fallout from Brexit.

Protests over the post-Brexit ­protocol – which keeps the country within the single market for goods and requires EU checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland – have been on the increase.

The beginning of the campaign for the council elections has been marked by a bomb threat and smashing of windows of a constituency office.

Dale Pankhurst, teaching ­assistant and PhD candidate at Queen’s ­University Belfast, warned there is a “battle against time” to prevent the situation escalating.

“The longer the problem persists, the more agitated sections of the ­population will become, thereby ­increasing the likelihood of violence returning to Northern Ireland,” he said. “There are a range of issues that cause grievance amongst the Unionist community.

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“Many Unionists view the ­protocol as an assault on the fabric of the ­Union and a violation of the ­principle of ­consent within the Belfast ­Agreement. Many see the Protocol as a stepping stone to a united Ireland as it forces businesses to strengthen ­trading ties with the Republic of ­Ireland due to the difficulty to trade the Protocol brings between ­Northern Ireland-Great Britain trade.”

Last week Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie linked an attack on his constituency office in which a window was smashed to his announcement he would no longer ­attend protests over the protocol.

He added: “Somebody can smash my window but I can fix it, but the first time that someone gets injured, the first time that someone gets killed, there is no going back on that.

“We are in a spiral of violence that I do not want to get us into. This is nothing to do with the election, this purely to do with protests around the protocol, which I do not think we should get involved in to raise ­tensions.”

Beattie also linked the ­increasing political volatility to an upsurge in paramilitary activity, including a bomb hoax at an event attended by Irish Foreign Affairs Minister ­Simon Coveney in north Belfast. That incident, in which a van driver was ­hijacked at gunpoint, has been blamed on the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

READ MORE: DUP threats over Brexit 'may see Northern Irish devolution collapse forever'

Prominent politicians from other Unionist parties, including DUP ­leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and TUV leader Jim Allister, have addressed ­recent protocol rallies, and defended them as peaceful protests.

Brexit has led to anger on both sides of the political divide in ­Northern ­Ireland.

Pankhurst said: “When there was a prospect of a hard, physical ­border returning along the Irish Border, ­nationalist politicians highlighted this would motivate resistance, both violent and non-violent, against border installations. Likewise with the onset of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Unionist politicians have highlighted that armed loyalist resistance may also materialise.”

The National: Brandon Lewis

Last week Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis (above) said the protocol is “not sustainable” in its current format, saying 200 ­businesses in Great Britain are not trading with Northern Ireland due to the post-Brexit trade arrangements. Talks ­between the UK and the EU over the protocol have not yielded a deal.

Pankhurst called for both sides to become more aware of “how precarious” the situation is now becoming in Northern Ireland and to “move ­quickly towards a resolution”.

He said: “The longer this sore festers, the more intractable the likelihood of reaching a settlement becomes due to increasing entrenchment and polarisation.

“This problem will not be resolved simply through placing a physical ­border here or there.

“The UK’s withdrawal from the ­European Union is the first time the bloc has faced this scenario.

“The border lines between the UK and the EU now lie along the fault lines of one of the world’s most ­intractable ethnic conflicts. Both sides must realise the seriousness of this fact.”

Speaking at a conference last week on the UK constitution, organised by thinktank UK in a Changing Europe, Katy Hayward, professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, said: “Unionism is in a difficult place and I think the British Government need to think seriously about how it is ­handling all of this.”

The Stormont powersharing ­executive collapsed earlier this year when the DUP withdrew Paul Givan as First Minister in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Hayward said the Assembly had performed “remarkably well” just ­before it broke up, introducing progressive legislation such as paid leave for victims of domestic violence.

She added: “We are coming into a huge cost of living crisis, ­Northern Ireland’s standard of living is ­below the rest of the UK and yet this ­election could well be dominated by the issues of the protocol.”