Riots flare up again on the northern island despite calls for calm

Northern Ireland police met a blockade of petrol bombs and stones on Thursday, says an AFP journalist, when violence flared up again in Belfast despite the appeal for calm.

The riot police on the Republican side of the divided city were furious with projectiles as they tried to prevent a crowd from moving towards trade union British unions.

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Irish counterpart Micheal Martin had previously demanded “calm” after days of violence that included a petrol bomb attack on a moving bus.

Martin and Johnson held telephone conversations in which they stressed that “violence is unacceptable” and “demanded calm”, the Irish leader’s office said.

But their talks went unmanned as night fell in Belfast, with unrest erupting on the Republican side of the capital.

Riots in recent days – the city’s worst unrest in recent years – had mainly stemmed from its union society, leading to joint condemnation from political leaders in the British province.

Unionists are angry over apparent economic disruption due to Brexit and existing tensions with pro-Irish nationalist societies.

“Destruction, violence and threats of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustified, no matter what concerns exist in societies”, says Northern Ireland’s executive leaders – consisting of trade union, nationalist and centrist parties.

“Although our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis visited Belfast to meet with leaders from the main parties, including trade union minister Arlene Foster and Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Fein, as well as advocates for faith and society.

He called the joint condemnation “a very clear statement” and added “there is no excuse for violence, we must ensure that we move forward in a proper democratic and political way.”

In Washington, the White House also expressed concern about the violence and demanded calm.

‘Sectarian violence’

In the unrest on Wednesday, gates were erected on a “peace line” – walls separating pro-Irish nationalist and unionist societies – and police said crowds from both sides broke through to attack each other with petrol bombs, missiles and fireworks.

The Northern Ireland Police Service (PSNI), Deputy Chief of Staff Jonathan Roberts, said the extent and nature of the violence was unprecedented in recent years.

“The fact that there was sectarian violence and that there were large groups on both sides … again is not something we have seen in a number of years,” he told reporters.

Before Thursday, 55 nights of unrest left 55 policemen injured, Roberts stated, as well as a press photographer and the driver of the bus fire-bombed on Wednesday.

He said children as young as 13 were suspected of involvement after being encouraged by adults, and the large volume of petrol bombs used suggested “a level of pre-planning”.

PSNI is investigating whether Northern Ireland’s infamous paramilitary groups were involved in the unrest.

‘Deeply rooted’

Northern Ireland endures 30 years of sectarian conflict that killed 3,500 people.

Unionist paramilitaries, British security forces and armed nationalists seeking to unite the territory with Ireland fought until a landmark peace treaty in 1998.

The agreement allowed union members and nationalists to coexist by blurring the region’s status and dissolving border controls with other EU member Ireland.

But Britain’s vote in 2016 to quit the EU revived the need for border controls. A special “protocol” was agreed which moved controls from the land border to ports dealing with the British mainland, prompting many trade unions to accuse London of treason.

There was also recent uproar among union members after Northern Irish authorities decided not to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders for attending a large funeral last year of a former paramilitary leader, in blatant violation of Covid’s restrictions.

Few people in central Belfast wanted to discuss the sensitive situation on Thursday.

“It’s deeply rooted, it’s not just about Brexit,” said Fiona McMahon, 56, before adding that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU had had a “massive impact”.

“The British do what the hell they want to do and we land with everything afterwards,” she told AFP.

‘Fantasy’ promises

Prime Minister Johnson tweeted overnight that he was “deeply concerned” and said “the way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or crime”.

Johnson and Martin agreed during their talks that “the way forward is through dialogue and work with the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement”, according to Dublin.