Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin on Saturday warned of a ‘backward spiral’ in the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, after a week of unrest continued with 14 police officers injured on the last night of clashes.
The mess erupted in pockets of Belfast – the capital of Northern Ireland – on Friday evening with petrol bombs and masonry thrown at police officers, the Northern Ireland Police Service (PSNI) said.
A car was also “hijacked and set on fire and pushed towards the police lines”, with the total number of officers injured in the recent disorder reaching 88.
Elsewhere, police clashed with a crowd of 40 in the northern town of Coleraine, and a man was charged with “possession of gasoline bombs under suspicious circumstances” following unrest in Newtownabbey, a suburb north of Belfast.
Saturday marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the three-decade conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland that has killed more than 3,600 people.
“We owe it to the Generation of Accord and even to future generations not to return to this dark place of sectarian killings and political discord,” Martin said in a statement.
“It is now incumbent upon those of us who currently hold the responsibility of political leadership to move forward and play our part and ensure that does not happen.”
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said “it has been a difficult and worrying week”.
“This anniversary is a reminder of the responsibilities we all have, as well as what politics, determination and dialogue can accomplish,” he said.
“This is the spirit we need now.”
“It is incumbent on all of us to help Northern Ireland let go of its conflicted past,” said British Secretary for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis.
The most violent unrest in recent years has stemmed mainly from the pro-UK Unionist community.
Resentment is simmer in some neighborhoods on the apparent economic dislocation due to Brexit and existing tensions with pro-Irish nationalist communities.
Following the UK’s departure from the EU earlier this year, controls and tariffs were introduced on some goods transiting from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland as the province now borders the bloc via the Republic of Ireland, member of the EU.
But critics of the protocol to the departure agreement in Northern Ireland say a border is now in force in the Irish Sea, leaving trade unionists, who want to stay in the UK, feeling betrayed.
Brigid Laffan, director of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, told Al Jazeera that the protocol undermined loyalist sentiment that “London will take care of them.”
“So trade unionists and loyalists feel more vulnerable now, and that adds up to many socio-economic problems in loyalist areas,” she said.
“What we are seeing today in Northern Ireland is therefore very dangerous.”
Violence has also spilled over into the nationalist community. On Thursday evening, nationalist rioters threw gasoline bombs, fireworks, bricks and bottles at rows of armored police vehicles, preventing them from advancing towards a trade union enclave.
The officers deployed a water cannon for the first time in years and pushed the crowds back later into the night.
The night before, the gates of a “wall of peace” separating the Unionist and nationalist districts were set on fire.
Police said crowds from either side broke in to attack each other with gasoline bombs, missiles and fireworks.
On Friday, marches had been planned in Unionist communities in Belfast, but they were called off following news that Prince philip – the husband of Queen Elizabeth II – was deceased.
“The protests are postponed as a sign of respect for the Queen and the Royal Family,” announced a sign hastily erected in a trade union district.
While the riots on Friday were less pronounced than at the start of the week, there are fears that they will gain new momentum in the coming days.
“I am worried about the coming weekend,” Michelle O’Neill, Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Sinn Fein Nationalist Party, told reporters on Friday.