Northern Ireland unrest: why has violence broken out?

Rioting has spilled on to streets in pockets of unionist areas in Derry, Belfast and towns in County Antrim

Northern Ireland has been rocked by six successive nights of violence with 55 police officers injured in a level of unrest “not seen in years”.

What is happening?

Serious unrest has spilled on to the streets since Good Friday in pockets of unionist areas in Derry, Belfast and other towns in County Antrim. Cars have been set on fire and petrol bombs and masonry have been thrown at police, leaving 48 officers injured, including seven on Wednesday night during the worst disturbances so far in Belfast.

The Northern Ireland policing board said the attacks on officers were “truly shocking” while the Northern Ireland executive in a joint statement after an emergency debate described the events as “deplorable”.

This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism. They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.
My thoughts are with the bus driver.

— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@DUPleader) April 7, 2021

Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist party leader and first minister, condemned the firebombing of a moving bus and said the latest disturbances were an “embarrassment to society”.

She tweeted: “This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism.”

On Wednesday night, protests started near the peace wall in central Belfast separating unionist and nationalist communities in the Shankill and Springfield areas, with tyres and bins set alight in the afternoon. As the evening wore on the violence escalated, with a bus petrol-bombed as the driver was trying to leave the scene, and a photographer for the Belfast Telegraph was attacked.

On Thursday police revealed that about 600 people had gathered at the interface gates between loyalist and nationalist communities at the Shankill and Springfield areas, and that six plastic bullets known as attenuating energy projectiles, or AEPs, had been fired on Wednesday night.

Eight officers were injured and two men aged 28 and 18 were arrested on suspicion of riotous behaviour.

Who is involved?

The violence has taken place in predominantly loyalist areas including the Waterside area of Derry, Carrickfergus and Newtonabbey, and the Shankill area in Belfast city centre.

The numbers involved have been small knots of 20, 30 to 40 people, but the sustained nature of the attacks and the seriousness of Wednesday night’s violence has shaken many and led to calls for action.

Many have expressed deep concern about the involvement of children, some as young as 12, fuelling suspicion that the violence is being orchestrated and directed behind the scenes.

What is the background to the unrest?

Tensions in loyalist communities have been heightened since Brexit checks came into force in January and there is a wider unease in the unionist community that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, one of four countries in the UK, has been put under threat by the Brexit settlement.

Although the region voted to remain in the EU, the DUP backed Brexit in a dangerous game of Westminster politics in which the party was outmanoeuvred and its interests sidelined.

While the party saw Brexit as a means of strengthening Northern Ireland’s place at the heart of the union, the special arrangements carved out in a hard Brexit deal between Boris Johnson and Brussels made it clear that higher political causes centring on the UK’s sovereignty took precedence.

The disorder seen this week has been linked to the loyalist anger over the Northern Ireland protocol, with checks on goods being shipped from Great Britain reinforcing fears over the region’s place in the union.

Has anything else stoked tensions?

Loyalist frustrations were given political legitimacy when the DUP launched an official campaign to have the Northern Ireland protocol scrapped, but some have blamed the violence on a “pushback against the police” after successful crackdowns on organised crime in loyalist areas.

Naomi Long, Northern Ireland’s justice minister, said Boris Johnson’s “dishonesty” over the consequences of a hard Brexit in Northern Ireland had contributed to loyalist anger, misleading them into thinking there would be no checks on goods arriving from Great Britain.

If Brexit happened in January, why is there violence now?

While anger has been brewing over Brexit for months, the decision by the prosecution authorities not to take action against Sinn Féin leaders who attended the funeral of a prominent republican last summer in apparent defiance of lockdown restrictions appears to have precipitated the violence.

Foster has repeatedly called on the chief of police to resign over the matter. After a week-long standoff she spoke to him on Wednesday morning and said the “full rigour of the law” must be applied to the perpetrators.

Who is involved in the unrest?

Many believe paramilitary forces behind criminal and drug gangs are orchestrating the violence behind the scenes after police success in cracking down on their operations. The loyalist gathering at the peace gates in Belfast on Wednesday was organised via social media.

What have politicians said?

The violence has been universally condemned by politicians across the spectrum but there has been criticism about the lack of intervention in Westminster. Boris Johnson made his first comment, expressing concern, after the attack on the bus driver on Wednesday night.

What have the police said?

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland said the “shocking scenes” of Wednesday night’s violence “could set our society back years”. The federation said it thought such sights had been “consigned to history” and leaders on all sides must work urgently to end the violence.

Violence on both sides of the interface at Lanark Way now. Calm is needed on BOTH sides of the gates before we are looking at a tragedy. These are scenes we hoped had been confined to history. @NIPolicingBoard @NIOgov @PoliceServiceNI

— Police Federation for Northern Ireland (@PoliceFedforNI) April 7, 2021

Doug Garrett, the chair of the policing board, called for a “redoubling of efforts to calm tension and for continued dialogue between the community and police officers at all levels of the PSNI”.

What is the worst that could happen?

Nobody expects a return to the violence of the past but many are worried that unless this is nipped in the bud the political settlement in Northern Ireland will be eroded, putting pressure on the power-sharing arrangements.

The complex challenges facing Northern Ireland demand a Prime Minister - as a custodian to the Good Friday Agreement - to show leadership.

I told @BBCr4today he must convene cross-party talks in NI.

Political challenges must be resolved through dialogue and leadership.

— Louise Haigh (@LouHaigh) April 8, 2021

What happens now?

The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, will hold meetings with the leaders of the five political parties in the executive – similar to the cabinet in Westminster – with the aim of bringing the violence to an end.

But longer-term there have been calls for a summit between Boris Johnson and the Irish prime minister, Micheál Martin. One of the key political challenges will be how to square the circle with the DUP, which is campaigning for the NI protocol to be scrapped, and how to stand down hardline loyalists believed to be behind the unrest.

Martin and the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, have called for urgent intergovernmental meetings. Haigh said this would demonstrate that “constitutional politics is the way to resolve this political tension”.


Lisa O'Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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