Violence burns across Northern Ireland in the worst street battles seen in years
— 3 minute read — By Derry Salter
Violence has spread across Northern Ireland in the past month, injuring over 90 police officers. Evoking memories of the Troubles, and the reality that people from the cities of Derry/Londonderry, Belfast and smaller towns face on a daily basis remaining in a bitterly divided society.
Violence began on 29th March in Derry, an area that is generally loyalist to Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. So far, police have arrested 18 people with many yet to be charged. Protests stopped on 9th April following the death of Prince Phillip, but reignited after a bomb was discovered outside the house of a female police officer near Dungiven on 19th April.
Alleged loyalist youths attacked lines of riot police officers with bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena, and Newtownabbey. On 7th April, fighting erupted over the so-called peace wall in west Belfast that divides the mainly loyalist Protestant communities from the Catholic nationalist communities. The dividing gate was smashed open, leading to the attack of a press photographer and the burning of a bus. Dissident republican campaigns like the New IRA also aim to renew bombing campaigns to intimidate the police force.
Government bodies in Belfast, Dublin, and London condemned the unrest. The U.S. backed these condemnations, calling for calm as the police used water cannons on rioters. Although political officials stand united in their denunciation of the violence, they remain divided about what caused it.
Nationalists claim that the violence allegedly is concentrated in areas where criminal gangs are working closely with loyalist paramilitaries. In March, a group including loyalist paramilitaries wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to withdraw their support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement over concerns of improper protocol.
However, unionist leaders link the violence with tensions related to the Irish Sea border imposed as a result of the Brexit deal. The new trading border was introduced to avoid the need for a hard border. However, the protocol means that Northern Ireland remains part of the EU single market for goods, which means exports from Great Britain must undergo checks at Northern Ireland’s ports. This severely threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Unionists believe that the British government prioritised the interests of Irish nationalists in this move, by cutting the whole country adrift from the UK. According to loyalist activist Stacey Graham, “people in loyalist communities feel that their identity is always under threat…like they’re not equal citizens like the rest of the UK”.
Moreover, unionist leaders attribute the riots to the lack of prosecution of Sinn Féin party members who broke COVID-19 regulations by attending the funeral of a former IRA member. Over 2,000 attended the funeral, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill – none of whom face prosecutions. Accusations of police pacifism towards Republicans, particularly Sinn Féin members, has only heightened tensions. North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly claimed that the DUP’s calls for prosecution, “have sent a very dangerous message to young people in loyalist areas”.
The violence starkly resembles the past conflict of theTroubles, which pitted pro-British loyalists against Irish nationalists for over three decades. Over 3,600 lives were lost in the era defined by violence, bombing and sectarian murder. It is clear that parts of Northern Ireland remain split, despite the peace deal made 23 years prior.