For those who have worked to build a new Northern Ireland in the 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the most difficult part of the last week of violence watched children as young as 12 scenes from the Troubles revival, three decades of sectarian conflict.
As petrol bombs fell on the so-called ‘peace wall’ separating loyalist and nationalist communities in West Belfast, police and local leaders worked to stop the rioting momentum localized.
“Local communities do not want to be taken back in time,” said Chief Superintendent Simon Walls, the Belfast District Commander, after announcing that two boys, aged 13 and 14, had been arrested after one night riots in South Belfast. from Sandy Row last Friday.
But a week later, the fires were still burning in West Belfast, with violence that was initially confined to loyalist quarters spreading into adjacent Nationalist areas, leading to call for calm British and Irish leaders and the White House on Wednesday.
These went unheard, with police forced to deploy water cannons on Thursday evening as rival community gangs gathered in the predominantly loyalist Shankill Road and predominantly nationalist Springfield Road to confront each other again. .
In the process, 19 more members of the Northern Ireland Police Service were injured, bringing the total number injured to 74 during nine days of violence.
The mood was calmer on Friday. Father Martin Magill of St John’s Parish in Belfast said: “There seems to be less tension in the streets on the loyalist side tonight. Magill was one of about fifteen clergy from both communities who held short-term services calling for calm and reflection in the nearby streets of Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill.
He said he expected less protests from loyalists over the death of Prince Philip, which sparked calls for the protests to be suspended. On the nationalist side, Magill said there had been a lot of work from community groups to “keep young people out of riots,” including keeping youth clubs open Friday night.
For Andrew Cunning, director of Left Side Up, a progressive, non-aligned Christian organization in Belfast that works to overcome old sectarian divisions, the scenes illustrated the challenges facing the region, despite more than two decades of peace brought by the 1998 agreement.
“The generation born in peace, under the banners of the ceasefire and the sharing of power, is reconstructing scenes of which they have no lived memory”, he wrote, in the context of a collection of thoughts from young grassroots workers.
Brexit ignites tensions
The origins of the outbreak of violence have both long and short-term causes, according to longtime analysts and political and community leaders in the region.
In the short term, tensions have intensified since January within the predominantly Protestant Unionist community over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of Britain’s 2019 Brexit Treaty, which created an offshore trade border. ‘Ireland. All Unionist parties have called for its abolition.
But the spark of the protests came late last month after a decision not to prosecute nationalist Sinn Féin politicians for attending the funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey last June in violation of Covid-19 rules.
Violent protests followed in Belfast, Londonderry and loyalist enclaves north of Belfast, as Unionist political leaders called for the resignation of the region’s chief of police, Simon Byrne.
Police blamed the “outlawed organizations” – loyalist paramilitary groups that have persisted as criminal gangs since the end of the unrest – for orchestrating the violence which was in part seen as retaliation for recent drug trafficking against them. gangs.
But the combination of union angst over Brexit and long-term structural problems caused by the continued sectarian segregation of Catholic and Protestant housing and education in working-class communities, as well as areas of persistent poverty, make it difficult to find a solution, according to Stephen Farry. , the MP for North Down for the Centrist and Cross-Community Alliance
“The problem is, unionism has decided to define protocol as an identity issue, and it’s very difficult to see how to get around that and put the genius back in the bottle,” Farry said.
For Brian Rowan, longtime correspondent in Ireland and author of Political purgatory, a new book on how Northern Ireland can escape the shadows of its past, unionism and the loyalist community are going through a ‘period of trauma’.
The implementation of the Brexit border in the Irish Sea, the intensification of discussions on the prospects for a united Ireland and this year’s census, which should show that Catholics and nationalists constituting for the first time the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, have all left unionism. deeply unstable.
“Together this creates a sense of distance and difference with the UK in a year that was to be a year of celebration for unionism,” he said.
However, tensions within loyalist and unionist communities as they prepare to mark the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland on May 3 are “still controllable,” according to John Kyle, Belfast City Councilor for the Unionist Party. Progressive (PUP), which has historical ties to the loyalist paramilitaries.
He says that while loyalists’ anger at protocol is real, a contributing factor to the recent violence is what are known as “recreational riots” – young people bored and fed up with the lockdown that has been allowed. by their elders – but for whom there is no deep support in the wider loyalist community.
“The vast majority of people think this is a very bad idea. This means Republicans can sit down because it is trade unionists who are harming their community and their cause. Most people in the center think it’s crazy, ”he said.
Lord Jonathan Caine, a Conservative peer who has advised six secretaries from Northern Ireland, said getting more flexibility from the EU in implementing the protocol should be a goal in the short term, but would not address the fundamental challenges facing the region.
“The loyalist riots are not just about dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol. We have to get back to how we build a common future for Northern Ireland or else it will happen again and again, ”he said.
On Friday night on Lanark Way, a few hundred yards from the West Belfast junction where the wreckage of a burnt bus still marked the route, a group of men erected posters reporting the protests “as a sign of respect for the queen and the royal family. »Following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh. Masked men said they expected the sign to be respected, pointing to the likelihood of a quieter night ahead – at least on the loyalist side of the peace line.
“Violence goes against everything many of us try to do,” said Stacey Graham, a loyalist activist working for Greater Shankill Alternatives’ SAFE Project.
“Lanark Way has always been spoiled by interface violence, staged fighting etc, but I think minute-by-minute tensions in Northern Ireland and the troublemakers who fueled the fire have escalated it. massively, ”she said.