Belfast riots explained: What is fuelling violence in Northern Ireland?

Boris Johnson, Taoiseach Micheal Martin and US President Joe Biden have called for calm after days of unrest, which has seen 74 police officers injured

Youths clashed at a peace wall in west Belfast (Image: Getty Images)

Pleas have been made for calm in Northern Ireland after days of violence on the streets described by a police chief as the worst seen in years.

A water cannon was used for the first time in six years to quell disorder in west Belfast on Thursday night, when stones and fireworks were hurled at police.

Some 74 officers have been injured during more than a week of clashes, with petrol bombs, fireworks and bits of masonry fired at police on Wednesday.

Crowds gathered on both sides of gates separating loyalist and republican areas in Belfast over two nights, with youth pelting petrol bombs and other missiles at each other.

A bus was torched and a press photographer was also allegedly attacked on Wednesday night.

Disorder has also taken place in Derry, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballymena in recent days.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts has described the disorder as "at a scale we have not seen in recent years."

Police used water cannon on Thursday night on the Springfield Road in Belfast (Image: REUTERS)

Two arrests were made on Thursday night and a "significant criminal investigation" is under way, he said.

Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheal Martin issued a joint call for calm after speaking over the phone on Thursday.

US President Joe Biden, who has Irish roots, is "concerned" by the violence and added his voice to calls for calm.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday: "We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland and we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.

"We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace."

In a statement, the Irish Government said Mr Johnson and Mr Martin had stressed that violence was unacceptable.

"The way forward is through dialogue and working the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement," the statement said.

Rioters at the "peace wall" gate into Lanark Way as protests continued in Belfast on April 7 (Image: REUTERS)

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is holding crisis talks with Stormont parties aimed at calming tensions exacerbated by a toxic cocktail of Brexit and coronavirus.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled from the Easter recess for an emergency sitting on Thursday, where all parties condemned the violence.

Here we look at the complex reasons for the disorder and why it matters.


Changes to trade after the UK left the EU in January have played a role in exacerbating tensions in Northern Ireland.

Boris Johnson's Brexit deal effectively created a border down the Irish Sea, as goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be subject to checks.

A key part of the deal, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods, which the rest of the UK left on January 31.

The point of this idea was to prevent a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU.

Avoiding a land border is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement, the landmark peace deal which brought an end to most of the violence suffered during the Troubles.

However the plan to avoid inflaming tensions with infrastructure at the Irish border has instead seen anger shift to ports, where threats were made to staff and menacing graffiti emerged.

The reality of post-Brexit life - which has included some disruption to food supplies and online deliveries - has angered some in loyalist communities, over the perception that it has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

Coronavirus laws

A row over the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians for attending a large funeral during the pandemic has also ratcheted up anger.

The funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June was attended by a number of senior republican politicians, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

Critics said the event broke coronavirus regulations, with large crowds appearing not to obey social distancing guidelines.

However prosecutors decided last month not to take action over the event, partly due to lack of clarity in the Covid-19 rules and partly due to interaction between the organisers and police ahead of the funeral.

The decision sparked outrage among some loyalist communities over perceived preferential treatment for the republican community.

Separately, months of living under strict lockdown rules may have also inflamed tensions.

Paramilitary involvement

There have been suggestions that paramilitary gangs have been stoking the violence in some areas, either directly or by encouraging young people to riot.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said police were investigating whether there was any paramilitary involvement in the scenes in Belfast on Wednesday.

In Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, the PSNI believes paramilitary involvement is partly to do with a rogue faction - the South East Antrim UDA - reacting to recent police operations targeting its criminal empire.

What are politicians saying?

In a joint statement, the five-party Executive said: "While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and for the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm's way to protect others.

"We, and our departments, will continue to work together to maximise the support we can give to communities and the PSNI to prevent further violence and unrest."

On a visit to Northern Ireland on Thursday, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis welcomed the clear statement from political leaders and said he had urged everyone to "think very carefully" about the language used.

He admitted Brexit had caused issues, saying: "I'll be the first to acknowledge over the first few months of the year there were real issues around how the protocol has landed for people, both as consumers and those in the loyalist and unionist community.

"The way to deal with these things is through a democratic and diplomatic, political process. There is no legitimisation of violence to deal with any of those issues."

He also called on the Loyalist Community Council (LCC), which speaks for loyalist paramilitary groups, to be clear they oppose the violence.


Source: The Daily Mirror


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