A ‘miracle’ no one has been killed in reignited Belfast violence

A ‘miracle’ no one has been killed in reignited Belfast violence

April 9, 2021

Belfast: Authorities in Northern Ireland are seeking to restore calm after the worst mayhem in a week of street violence in the region, where Britain’s exit from the European Union has unsettled an uneasy political balance.

A crowd of about 100 Protestant and Catholic youths in Belfast hurled bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs at police and each other again on Thursday night. Police responded with a water cannon blast.

Nationalists attack police just up from “peace wall” interface gates which divide the nationalist and loyalist communities in Belfast on April 8.Credit:Getty Images

The attack in the Springfield Road area followed several nights of rioting by nationalists and pro-British loyalists nearby condemned by the British and Irish governments and local political leaders.

Crowds including children as young as 12 or 13 clashed across a concrete “peace wall” that separates a British loyalist Protestant neighbourhood from an Irish nationalist Catholic area in west Belfast on Wednesday. Police fired rubber bullets at the crowd, and nearby a city bus was hijacked and set on fire.

The London Telegraph reported that messages leaked from WhatsApp and other social media forums suggested a high level of co-ordination among the rioters. It quoted Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, saying it was a “miracle that, as we stand here today, no one has been killed”.

A man walks past a burnt down in Belfast after another night of violence.Credit:Getty Images

The country has seen sporadic outbreaks of street violence since the 1998 Good Friday peace accord ended “the Troubles” — decades of Catholic-Protestant bloodshed over the status of the region in which more than 3000 people died.

But Police Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said the mayhem “was at a scale we have not seen in recent years”. He said 55 police officers had been injured over several nights of disorder and it was lucky no one had been seriously hurt or killed.

Britain’s split from the EU has highlighted the contested status of Northern Ireland, where some people identify as British and want to stay part of the UK, while others see themselves as Irish and seek unity with the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

The unrest has erupted largely in loyalist, Protestant areas, amid rising tensions over post-Brexit trade and border rules and worsening relations between the parties in the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing Belfast government.

Cars burn after Nationalists and Loyalists rioted against one another at the “peace wall” interface gates which divide the two communities in Belfast.Credit:Getty Images

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the unrest, saying “the way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.” He sent Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to Belfast for talks with the region’s political leaders.

Northern Ireland’s Belfast-based assembly and government held emergency meetings on Thursday and called for an end to the violence.

First Minister Arlene Foster, of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, warned that “when politics are perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair.” O’Neill called the violence “utterly deplorable”.

Despite the united message, Northern Ireland’s politicians are deeply divided, and events on the street are in many cases beyond their control.

As many predicted, the situation has been destabilised by Britain’s departure from the EU that became final on December 31.

A post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal has imposed some customs and border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process built.

But unionists says the new checks amount to the creation of a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The latest disturbances followed unrest over the long Easter weekend in pro-British unionist areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, that saw cars set on fire and debris and gasoline bombs hurled at police officers.

Some politicians and police have accused outlawed paramilitary groups — which remain a force in working class communities — of inciting young people to cause mayhem. They expressed outrage that a new generation was being exposed to, and pulled into, violence.

Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long, from the centrist Alliance Party, said she was horrified to watch video of adults “standing by cheering and goading and encouraging young people on as they wreaked havoc in their own community”. She called it “child abuse”.

Katy Hayward, a politics professor at Queen’s University Belfast and senior fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said unionists felt that “Northern Ireland’s place is under threat in the union, and they feel betrayed by London”.


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