Northern Ireland experiences worst rioting in years
Sporadic rioting has broken out in towns and cities across Northern Ireland (NI) over recent weeks. Since the end of March, dozens of police officers have been injured in the worst street violence to be reported in NI for years. Last month, the violent unrest prompted police to use water cannons to disperse crowds for the first time in six years, as crowds of predominantly loyalist youths attacked lines of riot police with bricks, petrol bombs, and fireworks. The violence first broke out between gangs of youths back in late March, in an area of Londonderry typically associated with loyalists – those who support NI remaining part of the UK. Protests and riots broke out on a near-nightly basis over the first week of April, with incidents reported in Belfast, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, and Newtonabbey. In early April, fighting spilt over a so-called peace wall in west Belfast which separates loyalist areas from predominantly Catholic nationalist communities. Unlike loyalist communities, nationalists favour a united Ireland. A gate along the wall was reportedly smashed open, leading to several hours of disorder – during which police officers and a press photographer were attacked, while a bus was hijacked and set alight. The clashes raised concerns over heightened sectarian tensions.
The unrest has been concentrated in the more deprived parts of cities, where criminal gangs linked to loyalist paramilitaries are known to have significant influence. Police have reported that there is increasing evidence that senior figures in organisations such as the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force have enabled rioting in some cases. Other loyalist paramilitaries such as the South East Antrim UDA are also alleged to have exploited opportunities to kick back at the police force following a recent clampdown on crime in the Carrickfergus area. There are also strong indications the violence is linked to simmering loyalist tensions over the new Irish Sea trading border imposed as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol – which came about as part of the UK-EU Brexit deal. The NI Protocol enables NI to remain in the EU single market for goods by avoiding the need for checks on the Irish border, with EU customs rules being enforced at NI ports instead. Unionists are largely against the NI Protocol, claiming it presents a threat to NI’s union with the UK and risks damaging trade. Loyalist communities have also come out against the protocol, writing a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to temporarily withdraw the support of several loyalist paramilitaries for the Good Friday Agreement – a deal signed in 1998 which effectively ended the Troubles – citing concerns over the protocol.
Other political factors have also influenced riots, including the decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders for violating Covid-19 regulations at the funeral of former IRA intelligence chief Bobby Storey in June 2020. The funeral was held when strict lockdown measures were still in place, limiting attendance numbers. Despite restrictions, some 2,000 mourners turned up, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill – whose attendance drew widespread criticism and accusations of double standards. More recently, reports that the British government plans to limit future prosecutions of British soldiers who served in NI during the Troubles emerged this week, sparking further anger – particularly amongst unionist groups and communities. Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) legislative assembly member (MLA) Doug Beattie has confirmed the UUP is against a blanket amnesty while Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also criticised the legislation. It’s understood the proposed law change would see limits placed on prosecutions for offences committed prior to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and would apply to former paramilitaries – overrunning the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which included proposed measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald described the proposed legislation as an “attack on the rule of law”, continuing the decades-long cover-ups surrounding investigations into British soldiers’ mistreatment of victims during the Troubles. If the legislation is confirmed during the Queen’s Speech next week, the news is likely to trigger further protests and potentially violent unrest.