They were scenes we thought had been consigned to a darker history. Mass rioting in the streets of Belfast, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, Ballymena, Coleraine and Londonderry; petrol bombs and missiles being thrown at police and others; hijacked and burned vehicles; a city skyline tinged with smoke and flames. Last night, furniture was set alight in the middle of a Belfast street.
Welcome to post-Brexit Northern Ireland. It’s all darkly familiar to those that remember the Troubles, yet most of the perpetrators of this latest surge of violence weren’t born then or even when “peace” came, courtesy of the Good Friday Agreement, 23 years ago.
The vicious rioting over the last few weeks is the Protestant/loyalist community’s response to the detested Northern Ireland Protocol — which has introduced an economic border between NI and Great Britain, and raised fears of an ultimate reunification of Ireland.
In October 2019, Boris Johnson — in his attempts to “get Brexit done” — put a customs border in the Irish Sea, separating the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland and meaning it would be treated as if it was still in the EU. In practical terms this means bureaucratic checks on imports and exports — for example, food being held up.
This protocol was the inevitable result of a hard Brexit championed for years by the Democratic Unionist Party — whom most of the rioters will vote for when they’re old enough. The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest political party, retains the support of grassroots loyalists, who are accusing Downing Street, not Stormont, of political treachery.
Joel Keys, a 19-year-old mobile phone sales assistant from west Belfast, tells me about his part in the unrest. He is older than most of the young rioters whose actions have left more than 80 police officers injured since April 2, and he was arrested during the first night of rioting in the city centre, and later released without charge.
He told me that as well as the unrest over borders, the violence — which the Police Service of Northern Ireland has described as the worst in years — is the inevitable result of living in what he calls a “two-tier policing state” where people feel that loyalists are treated less favourably than nationalists. It’s the opposite of what was euphemistically called “the Troubles”, when young Catholics/nationalists felt they were being treated as second-class citizens. While Keys doesn’t condone the violence — orchestrated by older, more sinister elements — he stopped short of condemning it.
“The only people providing frustrated kids in deprived areas with a solution are the adult trouble-makers; the politicians here have failed us,” he said. “Young loyalists are being told the only way they can fight back is by rioting.”
By April 7, the police were no longer the sole target, as masked teenagers made their way towards the heavy “interface” gates on the wall which divides Belfast’s loyalist Shankill Road and Springfield nationalist areas. “It was chilling to see young people with so much hatred in their eyes,” a Shankill resident told me. “Even more sinister was hearing adults cheering and clapping them.”
On the sixth consecutive night of unrest, a double-decker bus was hijacked and set on fire, and my Belfast Telegraph photographer colleague, Kevin Scott, was assaulted and had his equipment destroyed. “I was attacked from behind and, for the first time in my life, I received sectarian abuse,” explained the photographer, 26. “What happened to me was unpleasant, but I can leave the area at the end of the night, while a community is left to pick up the pieces.”
The only people providing frustrated kids in deprived areas with a solution are the adult trouble-makers
This violence had another novel element — rioters holding a petrol bomb in one hand and recording themselves on a mobile phone in the other. It could return to haunt them, with a PSNI unit now set up to trawl through hours of CCTV, television and social media footage. Scores of arrests are expected.
Shockingly, many parents appeared to be arming kids for battle. “I saw one father — my neighbour — lighting the petrol bombs, then handing them to his son to hurl at police,” explained one woman. “Finally, the mother came out and said, ‘That’s enough for tonight’, and the pair of them stopped.”
Normally these types of situations don’t subside until a tragic death douses the flames, as was the case two years ago when journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed while reporting on a riot in Derry. Here, the death of the Duke of Edinburgh led to what is hoped will be more than just a temporary calming of tension.
The influential Loyalist Communities Council umbrella group, while denying any paramilitary involvement in the unrest, said it was “seeking an end to all violence and to solve the underlying concerns of the loyalist and unionist communities” and clergy from across the traditional dividing lines also put on a demonstration of unity. Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, meanwhile, told the Commons this week that the PSNI needs to reconnect with communities to restore trust. Unfortunately for Mr Lewis, “trust” in the Tories, especially among unionists and loyalists, is rather limited following Boris Johnson’s bombastic insistence at the 2018 DUP conference that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement” between the UK and the EU that involved setting up an economic border in the Irish Sea.
With their politicians already feeling that they’ve been thrown under the proverbial bus, Northern Ireland’s pan-unionist community took little comfort from the Prime Minister’s recent declaration of “deep concern” over how anger over the protocol has manifested itself.
On Wednesday, it emerged that widespread acts of “civil disobedience” over coming weeks were being planned by loyalists. It’s going to be a long, volatile summer.