Deprivation, failure of leadership and suspicion of police and the Northern Ireland protocol are driving the unrest, writes Rodney Edwards
It’s Friday night in Belfast and a hijacked car is driven towards police Land Rovers in the loyalist Tiger’s Bay area and set on fire. As the engine explodes in North Queen Street, a plume of black smoke bellows into the sky
A group of masked males — mostly teenagers, as young as 14 — throw fireworks, bricks and glass bottles at police while a crowd of adults cheers them on.
Wheelie bins are set on fire and coloured smoke grenades thrown as residents, some in pyjamas, watch from their doorsteps.
A police helicopter hovers above. Fourteen officers are injured — one is knocked unconscious — and a press photographer sustains a knee injury. At one point a masked man shouts at journalists: “Get back now or you’ll be attacked.”
Just metres down the street in the New Lodge area, a working-class Catholic community, police officers are targeted in sporadic attacks by youths throwing petrol bombs. Standing in a row, the officers form a human chain to stop loyalists and republicans from clashing along the road.
Hours after the death of Britain’s Prince Phillip — and on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement — violence erupted in Northern Ireland for the seventh night in a row. The agreement promised much but in this part of Belfast, division still exists.
Three teenagers, all 14, were arrested on Friday night and have been released pending further enquires. The number of police officers injured during the disorder so far now stands at 88.
The suggested causes for the loyalist disorder are anger over the Northern Ireland protocol, the decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin members for attending an IRA man’s funeral — and breaching Covid-19 restrictions — and criminal elements within paramilitaries craving notoriety.
A PSNI source says there is no evidence to suggest loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) or Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) are organising the rioting with the exception of South Antrim UDA — a breakaway faction which runs a multi-million pound drugs empire.
Many believe the root cause of the violence stems from years of social deprivation on both sides of the divide, the lack of opportunities for young Catholics and Protestants and crucially, a failure by some politicians to lead.
There is also a view that a trans-generational problem of children learning from elders who went rioting or to jail “fighting for Ulster” has sparked a new generation of sectarianism. All of which has created a perfect storm amid a global pandemic.
One loyalist observing the stand-off with police was Johnny, who is 23 – the same age as the paper on which the peace accord is written. “The Good Friday Agreement is dead,” he says, wearing a mask. “It’s done, it needs ripped up.”
He accuses Sinn Féin of “controlling” the PSNI and says the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster — seen as the leader of unionism — “is running us loyalists into the ground” and “is not wanted here”.
“There was that Bobby Storey funeral, nobody was prosecuted — that’s why this is taking place tonight. As well as that, there is no leadership from the DUP or Arlene Foster.”
The flames of the stolen car light up the street. “This is what Sinn Féin wants,” says Johnny, “They want all this violence to make us look bad, they just want to ruin Northern Ireland.”
In between several Union flags there’s a banner across the road that reads, ‘No Irish Sea Border’. Another masked loyalist, Mark (17), accuses the British government of “separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK”.
“We don’t want the Irish Sea Border to happen because if this happens we’re not going to get any of our supplies,” he says. “We are not going to get our cigarettes or alcohol.”
As the tensions intensify, police dogs are brought in. “Move, move, move,” shouts an officer carrying a riot shield and a fire extinguisher. A sign of modern-day disorder, a young man streams the scenes live on Facebook. “My phone is on 20pc,” he says, “The battery is about to go.”
But those rioting do not represent all young people in this part of Northern Ireland, according to Robert (18) who says many teenagers like him "just want to make something of our lives”.
“I am not daunted by what I am seeing here, I am well used to it. There’s a lot of bitterness and a lot of kids are being brought up to hate each other, that hatred is being bred into them.”
“There is no leadership in this country — it’s more like a dictatorship,” says Joel (17). He says he tried to stop his friends from taking part tonight. “Young people need to know that violence does not pay. It’s not something you should be doing at this age; you should be having fun.”
Over in the New Lodge area, a group of young people react furiously to police when a teenager is arrested and placed in the back of a Land Rover.
“That child did nothing — you’ve just made the situation worse,” shouts Aishleen, a community worker. “What the police just did there was appalling,” she says. “They lifted a child and are going to take him away.”
Youth workers like her have been trying to keep trouble at bay and even reopened facilities which were closed due to the pandemic. “We’re just trying to get the kids into the youth club, but they don’t want to listen and that’s not easy.”
“You police are f**king wankers,” says an older woman, watching from the other side of the street.
She applauds as pieces of masonry are thrown onto a road damaged by a petrol bomb. Further up the street, an older man using a crutch throws a brick at a police Land Rover.
Loyalist Joel Keys (19) was arrested after attending a protest in the Sandy Row area last week. While he hasn’t been charged, he is subject to bail conditions.
“I wasn’t involved in rioting; I was there trying to get a 13-year-old away from the trouble.”
He says he doesn’t accept “violence is never the answer”.
“I don’t agree with that, but we’re not at that point yet — that has to be an absolute last resort.”
While the mostly loyalist violence has been relatively minor compared to previous years, it has sparked a debate around unionism — 100 years since the formation of Northern Ireland.
For some, loyalism is seen as “a dirty word’, says loyalist community worker Andy McCormick (23), who suggests there is a failure by politicians North and south to “understand our anger”.
“The only way people have known to express their anger through the history of Northern Ireland is through violence … but I don’t advocate criminality whatsoever.”
In a society where division can sometimes appear to be the currency, Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick from Ulster University believes the rioting is evidence this mentality is being passed on to children.
“We are bound up in a political crisis that is tinged towards loyalist, unionist, republican and nationalist arguments and that makes violence and disorder more likely,” she says.
She says bread-and-butter issues are being overlooked and an “ignorance” by unionist parties such as the DUP “means they take for granted the votes they get from working-class loyalists”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood agrees, saying there has been a failure to address socio-economic issues in nationalist and unionist estates by the power-sharing executive. “Unless we deal with the underlying economic problems these type of problems will not be sorted,” he says.
Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long says sectarianism is a “toxic influence” in Northern Ireland.
“We have seen poor leadership from the deputy First Minister [Michelle O’Neill] and her party when it came to the actions of her party around the Bobby Storey funeral, and I do think the DUP fanned the flames with reckless words.”
Ms O’Neill says “unequivocal support” for the police and their leadership is the “responsible thing to guarantee today”.
“Unionist leaders have withdrawn their support for the chief constable, demanding that he resign. When we see that manifest itself, with young people from working-class loyalist areas attacking the police, it seems to me and all who are watching on that those things cannot be entirely divorced. Political unionism cannot blame Brexit.”
Ms Long says Foster’s repeated calls for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign over the Storey furore were “not the actions of responsible leadership”.
But former senior RUC officer Jim Gamble says it’s not as simplistic as blaming a political party and contends there is “at the very least the perception of two-tier policing” in the PSNI.
“I support the frontline officers but senior command in policing cannot simply abdicate responsibility and hide behind the fact that there has been a lack of consistency in policing.
“The problem now is they are tolerating far too much disorder from those loyalists who are grooming and radicalising young people because they have undermined their own position.”
When Ms Foster met Mr Byrne last week, albeit virtually, the topic of his resignation was “never mentioned”, according to sources privy to the discussion.
Due to illness, Ms Foster did not chair a meeting of the executive with Mr Byrne 10 minutes later — leaving that to Ms O’Neill. During the meeting the Sinn Féin Northern leader called on Stormont ministers to be united in condemnation of the violence and a statement expressing their concern was drawn up by officials and signed off.
It’s understood Ms Foster was “too ill” to attend a meeting with British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis on Friday morning and instead her colleague Jeffrey Donaldson stepped in.
Absent from the meeting was Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney who — along with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar — has been subjected to loyalist intimidation in Belfast.
“It was pointed out that Coveney wasn’t there and how we need the two governments to be united to avoid this developing into a political crisis, but he deflected from that. He [Lewis] deliberately didn’t invite Simon Coveney,” claims the executive source.
The Loyalist Communities Council broke its silence last week to call for an end to the unrest and denied any involvement in the rioting.
“The organisation said none of its associated groups have been involved either directly or indirectly in the violence witnessed in recent days,” read a statement.
Outspoken Unionist Jamie Bryson, who BBC Northern Ireland now introduces as “someone who is linked to the UVF” when he appears on radio, rejects the suggestion he has been “sounding the dog-whistle”. He also does not agree that his anti-protocol utterances or criticism of the Irish Government have contributed to the disquiet.
“No, if there’s any dog-whistling, I think it’s the grassroots loyalism and unionism and the DUP have come running.
"Let’s put the blame where it belongs and that’s with Leo Varadkar who went to the European Union and talked up the potential of IRA bombs.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson denies his party has played a part in raising the temperatures of loyalists, describing this as “plain nonsense”.
“A politician didn’t have to stir this up; people know about the protocol; they know about the Bobby Storey funeral. We never, ever asked for public protest.”
The PSNI expects more protests and violence in the coming days. Chief Inspector Darren Fox said yesterday: “I am appealing to all those with influence to help bring this violence to an end.”