Wave of violent protests in Northern Ireland brings back bitter memories of 'the troubles'

Eve Hartley
·Producer, Reporter
·6 min read

Protesters attacked police with bricks, bottles and gasoline bombs and a car was set on fire in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Friday night as unrest in the region continued for the eighth consecutive evening.

The latest scenes were played out in north Belfast and followed on from prior clashes between rival youths in the west of the city on Wednesday and Thursday.

On Thursday police used water cannons for the first time in six years in an attempt to disperse protesters gathered at a “peace wall” constructed to separate an Irish nationalist neighborhood from a British loyalist one. Belfast authorities said 19 officers were injured Thursday night, which brought the total number of injured officers over the past week to 74.

While on Wednesday evening protesters hurling gasoline bombs, fireworks and rocks gathered on either side of the Lanark Way gates –– which display the painted message: “There was never a good war or a bad peace.” The gates still divide the predominantly nationalist Catholic Springfield Road from the mainly unionist Protestant Shankill Road –– and have served as the flashpoint for renewed, violent clashes.

For nearly a week, crowds of Protestant and Catholic youth have provoked one another through the gaps in the wall, video footage from journalists at the scene shows. Stemming from decades-old tensions referred to as “the troubles,” the reignited violence has been, in part, caused by Britain’s exit from the European Union.

In addition to widespread anger in Northern Ireland over Brexit trading agreements, protests over policing and outrage at the lack of prosecution for some politicians who allegedly broke coronavirus restrictions have added fuel to the clashes in the region.

In the Shankill Road area of Belfast Wednesday, rioters hijacked a double-decker bus before setting it alight and letting it roll down the street. In another incident in the area on the same day, a local press photographer was attacked and his camera equipment was reportedly smashed.

Police vehicles are seen behind a hijacked bus burning on Shankill Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Police vehicles are seen behind a hijacked bus burning on Shankill Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Wednesday. (Reuters)

According to police, the unrest at the Lanark Way peace wall involved “equally large numbers on both sides” of the entrenched political divide.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said he believes it was likely that paramilitary organizations were involved and had planned the rioting, but senior police sources later said there was no evidence to support that claim.

“Last night was at a scale we haven’t seen in Belfast or further afield in Northern Ireland for a number of years," Roberts told the BBC, referring to Wednesday night’s violence.

In a message posted to Twitter on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was "deeply concerned by the scenes of violence” in the region.

“The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality,” Johnson said in a tweet.

Simon Coveney, Northern Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, echoed the concerns of other officials, saying it was a time of “real tension” in the country.

“This needs to stop before somebody is killed or seriously injured,” Coveney said during a Thursday appearance on national broadcaster RTÉ’s radio program “Morning Ireland.”

“These are scenes we haven’t seen in Northern Ireland for a very long time. They are scenes that many people thought were consigned to history, and I think there needs to be a collective effort to try to defuse tension,” he added.

A fire burns in front of the police on the Springfield Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland April 8, 2021. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fire burns in front of the police on the Springfield Road as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Thursday. (Reuters)

Northern Ireland went through a peace process in the late 1990s after decades of conflict. Most of the violence was deemed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998. Since then, violence between Republican and loyalist factions has been limited to sporadic flare-ups.

A main issue in the conflict –– and one that is still divisive in the country –– is the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. In simplified terms, unionists and loyalists believe the country should remain a part of the U.K. and are usually Protestants, while nationalists or Republicans, who are mainly Catholics, believe Northern Ireland should become part of a united Ireland.

Tensions erupted after a decision last week by prosecutors not to take action against Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein politicians who allegedly broke coronavirus restrictions during the June funeral of former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey. The event saw around 2,000 mourners gather on the streets of west Belfast at a time when strict curbs on public gatherings were in place amid the coronavirus pandemic. The decision dismayed some loyalists, solidifying their view that the institutions of the state give preferential treatment to Republican leaders.

Since the U.K. voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, an uneasy calm has grown more tenuous. Under the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a de facto border was created in the Irish Sea, with goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain subject to EU checks. The lack of a border between the U.K. and Ireland had been seen as a key element of the post-1998 peace, but now the new regulations have angered unionists, who have accused London of abandoning them.

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 09: Flames and smoke rise from car set a fire during protests as rioters hurled petrol bombs, fireworks and stones at police amid unrest since Wednesday, in Belfast, Northern Ireland on April 09, 2021. â¨The unrest started when some Sinn Fein members attended a crowded funeral on top of tensions caused by Brexit border arrangements, which brought checks on goods shipped between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. â¨Both loyalist and nationalist areas were involved in riots in west Belfast. (Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Flames and smoke rise from car set a fire during protests as rioters hurled petrol bombs, fireworks and stones at police amid unrest since Wednesday, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, outrage directed at the Police Service of Northern Ireland has grown over a recent spate of high-profile arrests and drug busts. Unionists have pointed to the arrests as further evidence of “second-class” treatment by the authorities.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the recent spate of violence in the region.

“We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland, and we join the British, Irish, and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm,” Psaki said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters the Good Friday Agreement must be protected from becoming “a casualty of Brexit.”

“We are deeply concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland, and we join the British, the Irish and Northern Irish leaders in calls for calm,” Price said.

“We remain, as you have heard us say before, steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and all communities enjoy the gains of a hard-won peace,” he added.

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