Political tensions have been exacerbated by long-term covid restrictions – some say the violence we’ve seen over the last week should have been expected.
The BBC’s Northern Ireland Home Affairs Correspondent says the prophecy was clear back in January when alarming graffiti sprung up in opposition to the trading protocol being imposed on Northern Ireland as a consequence of Brexit.
Most of the violence is concentrated in Belfast and the loyalist areas in Derry/Londonderry, Carrickfergus, Newtonabbey and Portadown. On Wednesday night, a bus was commandeered and set alight by demonstrators. Groups across the country have thrown petrol bombs, fireworks, masonry and metal rods at police.
Anger among loyalists is palpable with regards to the protocol. Protestors are calling for its removal, arguing it imposes a border along the Irish Sea and strips Northern Irish residents and businesses of their British identity.
Northern Ireland is remaining a part of the EU’s single market post -Brexit, which means customs checks must be carried out on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. This has already disrupted food and plant imports and online deliveries across Northern Ireland.
The sticking point for most loyalists is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement grants Northern Irish citizens assurance that there will be no land border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The new protocol, although not technically involving a border on land, crumples this agreement in the eyes of many loyalists.
The LLC, an umbrella organisation that represents loyalist community groups, has withdrawn their formal support of the Good Friday Agreement. Irish Republicans have challenged them to present a reasonable alternative.
Fittingly, the unrest began on the anniversary of the signing of this agreement. Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary, have been accused of ignoring the importance of this agreement for many Northern Irish citizens.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in Northern Ireland, backed Brexit but has called for the removal of the protocol.
Another log on the fire is the recent decision by the Public Prosecution’s Office not to bring charges against 24 Sinn Fein politicians who attended a funeral last June. The funeral of Bobby Storey, an Irish Republican who is thought to have led the IRA’s intelligence unit in the 1990s, had over 2000 attendees and took place in the height of Northern Irish covid-19 restrictions.
Sinn Fein is another big political party in Northern Ireland and is devoted to the reunification of Ireland. Loyalist citizens and party members have accused the police of treating republicans and loyalists unequally after the decision not to prosecute. The office cited a lack of clarity surrounding covid restrictions as one of the reasons why they couldn’t charge the attendees.
Deputy First Minister and representative for Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill, has apologised for her presence at said funeral, and in Thursday’s early recall of the Northern Irish Assembly, called for unity among representatives in order to deescalate the violence.
Naomi Long, member for the Alliance party (formally neither a unionist or republican party) sympathised with those who felt betrayed by the post-Brexit arrangements with the rest of the UK. She went on to accuse First Minister Arlene Foster of misleading the public on the outcome of Brexit and fanning the flames by patronising those engaging in violence.
Long cited a general sense of disillusionment among Northern Irish youth as another factor that has led to the rioting. She said those involved, some as young as 12 years old, are more motivated by a lack of opportunity and optimism for their own futures than they are by the details of any protocol.
First Minister Foster alluded to the Sinn Fein members evading prosecution when she proposed the only way to move forward was to maintain equality under the law “regardless of status or background”.
Foster has called for the resignation of the chief of the Police Service for Northern Ireland over the funeral debacle. Deputy FM O’Neill says Foster’s condemnation of the police chief has worsened attacks on the officers working to deescalate the violence.
Any progress to be seen will depend on unity from the DUP and Sinn Fein, in spite of the funeral attendances and dissatisfaction with protocol. Nicola Mallon speaking for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (an Irish republican party), said initial responses from politicians had fallen short of what was required to prevent further violence.
Mallon said the widespread unrest and involvement of so many young people was a “damning indictment” of the “quality of political leadership” that Northern Ireland has had in the last decades. Mallon finished her segment on Thursday by calling for the end to the “political name game” and a renewed focus on preventing the creation of another disaffected, “disadvantaged” young generation.