When the nightly riots began in Northern Ireland a week ago, it was mostly young men and teenagers from unionist neighborhoods who came with the police. Some of those arrested were 13 and 14 years old.
But on Wednesday, hundreds of Irish nationalist and unionist protesters began to appear, a worrying escalation that touched old memories of the 30 years of sectarian violence known as Troubles, leading to the deaths of 3,500 civilians, British security personnel and paramilitary members. .
Thursday night, photos on Twitter showed protesters gathering again in Belfast ̵
Saturday marks the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, mediated by the United States, which stopped decades of civil strife between Catholics and Protestants and brought an end to the militarization of the borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south.
On one of the “walls of peace” that separates traditional Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast on Wednesday night, the two sides threw bricks and fired fireworks at each other across the barrier.
A gripping image showed a masked young man throwing a firebomb over a locked gate covered by an old mural that read, “There was never a good war or a bad peace.”
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney appealed for calm, warning: “This must stop before anyone is killed or seriously injured.”
“These are scenes that we have not seen in Northern Ireland for a very long time. They are scenes that many people thought were sent to the story, and I think a collective effort must be made to try to alleviate tensions, “he told Irish national television station RTE.
Dozens of police officers are injured. Politicians representing unionist and nationalist sides have condemned the violence, even though they blamed the insurgency.
On Thursday, leaders from both sides of the Northern Ireland Assembly issued a joint statement expressing support for law and order and the police as well as serious concerns about “the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets.”
Increasing the anxiety, it appears that paramilitary groups are now controlling some of the violence, said Jonathan Roberts, assistant chief of police for Northern Ireland.
“Last night was on a scale we have not seen in Belfast or further afield in Northern Ireland for a number of years,” Robert told reporters. “We are very, very lucky that no one was seriously injured or killed last night, especially given the large number of petrol bombs dropped.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the clashes, particularly attacks on police, a bus driver and a photojournalist. “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or crime,” he said Wednesday night.
Members of the US Congress and President Biden have warned Johnson that Brexit must not undermine peace in Northern Ireland. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called for calm. “We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland, where all communities have a voice and enjoy the benefits of the hard-won peace,” she said, adding: “We welcome the provisions of both the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and The Northern Ireland Protocol, which helps protect the gains of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. ”
The sources of this week’s violence are varied, stirred by complaints old and new.
Unionists and their politicians, who feel part of Britain, dedicated to the Queen and the country, are upset by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Johnson and his colleagues in the European Union agree to seal their Brexit agreement.
The new realities of post-Brexit trade have given rise to complaints that Northern Ireland is being treated differently from the UK with movements of goods effectively controlled by new customs authorities and controls over the Irish Sea.
Unionists were also upset that up to 2,000 people came out to see the funeral card in June for Bobby Storey, a former intelligence chief for the Irish Republican Army and a top figure in the nationalist Sinn Fein party.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, demanded that the chief of police resign in order not to stop the rally, which broke covid-19 restrictions.
“The causes of the current anger are very complex,” said Justice Minister Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, which occupies the middle ground in Northern Ireland. “They are related to frustrations and a sense of betrayal around Brexit, around anger over the handling of Republican funerals, and there is anger directed at the police undermining loyalist paramilitaries.”
She said, “We have reached a point where all these things have come together in a toxic mixture.”
Journalists on the ground in Belfast also say many of the young people are bored, angry and deprived and are exposed to the excitement and violence of a street investigation, a phenomenon they call “leisure riots”.
Eileen Weir, who works across community relations and is a coordinator at the Women’s Center in Shankill, in the heart of the loyalist Belfast, said: “If you feel that identity is being taken from you, how many thorns can you take? But walking the streets is not the answer. We saw the light 23 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement. ”
Weir said, “Our youth are drawn into this and are felt for the future over actions from a handful of youth, many not from the areas where violence takes place.” She said: “We need politicians to come up with solutions, not more problems.”
Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, said: “We have arrived at this time because we have invested in a political process during a peace process.”
The Good Friday Agreement demands shared power in the Assembly and Government of Northern Ireland, a troubled ceasefire that has often led to paralysis.
“We have integrated sectarian division into the framework of our institutions,” Bailey said. “It is time for all actors to commit to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and to deliver it with people and society at heart.”
Booth reported from London.