BELFAST — Northern Ireland leaders unanimously condemned rising street violence Thursday. But even at critical moments of conflict, the two sides cannot agree on what people are rioting about.
A week of violence that has left 55 officers injured intensified Wednesday night as rival masked gangs traded salvos of bottles, bricks and fireworks across the main “peace line” fortifications that separate British unionists and Irish nationalists in west Belfast. On the unionist side, youths torched a public bus and drove a hijacked car into one of the wall’s locked gates.
Nobody has been killed, although video footage showed one rioter rolling in flames after walking into the shatter zone of a petrol bomb. In such skirmishes, the number of protesters injured isn’t officially documented, because rioters often avoid hospitals for fear of arrest.
These are the most severe clashes since 2013, when Belfast City Council narrowly voted to reduce the amount of time the British flag is flown. That move stirred months of illegal unionist demonstrations and street battles in which 157 police officers were wounded.
This time, several unionist grievances — the post-Brexit trade protocol, Sinn Féin’s defiance of pandemic restrictions to honor IRA dead, and perceptions that police avoid enforcing the law in nationalist areas to minimize conflict — have combined to inflame sectarian passions. It’s no coincidence this started in a fine-weather runup to Easter, a four-day holiday that often features increased communal conflict with Irish Republican Army commemorations on the nationalist side and unionist parades on the other.
Yet this foreseeable rise in tensions has been accompanied by almost total indifference from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who offered his first public comments Thursday in a two-sentence tweet calling for dialogue, not violence.
Locally, much blame is heaped on Johnson for choosing a “hard” Brexit that left Northern Ireland in the EU single market. That move shocked unionists who had backed Brexit on the assumption that the entire U.K. would leave together.
Reflecting its disengagement to date, the British government announced Thursday it would seek to defuse tensions by dispatching its Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, to … Northern Ireland.
Since his appointment last year, the former Conservative Party chairman has managed to unite Northern Ireland leaders in a shared view that he has a poor handle on local affairs while spending more time in England than at his Stormont House office or palatial official residence at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.
After post-Brexit EU customs checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports went live in January, Lewis rejected the consensus that this created a new economic border within the U.K. The Democratic Unionists have responded by launching a campaign to undermine enforcement of those checks and warning that violence from unionist militants — so-called loyalists — was inevitable.
Such anger didn’t break into the open until last week, when state prosecutors decided not to charge 24 elected Sinn Féin politicians for attending an IRA funeral. Prosecutors cited the police’s pre-funeral cooperation with Sinn Féin as part of its reason why.
This unleashed the rioters, who express little understanding of law or the protocol but are certain that London, the EU, the police and Sinn Féin all have conspired to make decisions over their heads.
“This is happening because of the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] and the judiciary system’s appeasement of republicans,” said Ian Edwards, a resident of the Shankill Road, a Protestant community at the front line of conflict since the start of The Troubles in 1969.
“It’s a direct consequence of Boris Johnson signing us up to Brexit and the Irish Sea border that he denied would ever happen,” Stewart said. “All this has done is open up a constitutional can of worms.”
A senior Belfast policeman, Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts, said Wednesday night’s rioters, some as young as 13, “were encouraged and supported by adults, who stood by and clapped and cheered and orchestrated those children in becoming involved in violent disorder.”
At a special session of the Northern Ireland Assembly, politicians from all five parties in the region’s coalition government unanimously passed a motion authored by its most middle-ground member, the Alliance party.
The motion condemned the rioters, praised the police and — in lines aimed both at the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin — “recognises that leadership comes with responsibility [and] recommits to upholding a culture of lawfulness in both actions and in words.”
Introducing the motion, Alliance leader Naomi Long — the justice minister and sole Alliance member of the Executive — said both sides needed to concede their own role in provoking riots.
In comments directed at the Democratic Unionists, she said: “Instead of calm and measured leadership in the face of challenge, we have heard inflammatory rhetoric, with threats of renewed violence being bandied around by people who claim to be trying to lead others away from their violent past. That dangerous language and foolish talk could only ever serve to further stoke the anger.”
Sinn Féin’s escape from prosecution, she said, had fanned those flames. “After a year of restrictions and lockdowns, people were, understandably, frustrated and even angry that those who made the rules and then broke them may not be held to account,” Long said.
The Democratic Unionist leader, First Minister Arlene Foster, and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill both announced they backed Long’s motion — then offered polarized spins on what it meant.
To Foster, who addressed the chamber by video link from her home, “responsible leadership” meant maintaining her line that all political parties must be “equal under the law.” She offered no retreat from her contention that police commanders’ collusion with Sinn Féin lawbreaking had triggered the loyalist violence.
O’Neill said Foster’s recent meeting with loyalist paramilitary leaders and her demands for police commanders to resign “cannot be entirely divorced” from subsequent loyalist attacks on police.
Northern Ireland’s landmark Good Friday peace accord — which proposed power-sharing between unionists and nationalists as the road to lasting stability – marks its 23rd anniversary on Saturday.
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