On the evening of Wednesday, April 7, rioting in Northern Ireland’s capital city erupted on a scale not seen in years.
After decades of violence, 1998’s Good Friday Agreement had paved the way for Belfast to rebuild, and it had since made vast strides to become a welcoming, safe city, moving on from its turbulent past. Until this week. For Wednesday night felt, to many, like a scene from days gone by – and there is now a real fear here that our hard-fought peace is now at stake.
Over the past week, disorder has popped up in many areas throughout Northern Ireland, from Newtownabbey, just outside Belfast, to the County Antrim town of Ballymena and NI’s second biggest city of Derry/Londonderry. More than 55 police officers have been injured so far, and ten arrests have been made, as gangs – including children as young as 13 years old – have pitched battling against the police, and each other, on the streets. The catalyst? A complex combination of issues left to simmer to boiling point.
Behind the violence
First up, there’s Brexit’s Northern Irish Protocol, which imposed an Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the UK. This has left many loyalists feeling their British identity is under threat, and has led to graffiti and banners being erected throughout the country calling for the sea border to be removed.
In January, the Port of Larne had to temporary suspend Brexit checks due to threats against port employees, and the Loyalist Committee’s Council has since withdrawn its backing for Brexit over the protocol. So, there’s little question many of these riots initially started in protest against the sea border. But to blame Brexit entirely is to simplify the many competing and complicated grievances criss-crossing Northern Ireland’s communities.
Secondly, there has been anger amongst Unionist communities over the decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians, including the Deputy First Minister, who attended a Republican funeral breaching coronavirus restrictions last June. In the wake of this, the DUP first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, called on the police chief constable to resign, further deepening and igniting distrust between the police and Unionist communities.
And then thirdly, there’s anger aimed at lacking representation, a disillusion in the current political system in Northern Ireland that has seen many people turn away from democratic engagement. West Belfast is the second highest region in the UK for child poverty, yet vital support services, youth organisations and community assistance systems have been underfunded and closed down, leaving many young people vulnerable to falling victim to the paramilitary organisations.
Amidst this tangled web of grievances, Wednesday’s night of violence brought the most volatile unrest yet, with a bus being attacked and set alight, and groups of hundreds of people throwing petrol bombs, eventually breaking the barrier of the infamous peace walls at Lanark Way. There is now a real fear, among both the public and police, that things will escalate further and lives will be lost. Asked if there was a concern about weapons being involved, assistant chief constable Jonathan Roberts stated, “Given the history of Northern Ireland, it is something always in the back of our minds.”
There is also a very real concern among many in Northern Ireland that the fragile peace that has allowed us to build a shared future is now in real jeopardy. As Green Party councillor Brian Smyth puts it, the flames of unrest have been stoked by a “failure of politicians to address the root causes: poverty, inequality, poor health outcomes, poor educational outcomes, youth services stripped back,” leaving a situation in which “there’s no investment, no hope.”
This sentiment is also felt by people in Belfast itself, where an anonymous resident told me: “A lot of the blame lies at the top of society for this resurgence of violence. The same levels of poverty and despair infiltrate both sides of the community. They have been failed by politicians and their stoking of tensions and failure to address the societal cracks and austerity lay the foundations for disillusioned and voiceless communities.”
Is Westminster listening?
Yesterday, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, flew into Belfast to meet with politicians and faith leaders, but found many asking why it took him a week. Questioned over his delayed response, he claimed he was unaware of this public sentiment of abandonment, and insisted he had been speaking with police and political leaders about the unrest for days before his arrival. That defence, however, simply left many people here wondering why it took such an escalation in unrest to see the secretary progress from talks to physically flying across the Irish Sea.
That picture is indicative of a wider feeling that people in the mainland UK aren’t paying attention or remain unaware of what’s happening here. The lack of widespread media coverage has also had an impact, antagonising those who believe the story would be more prominently featuring on the news if it was happening in any other region of the UK. As another anonymous resident remarked, “Once again, Northern Ireland has been left behind by the mainstream UK media and politicians. It’s treated as a problem child, an ugly story with no happy ending or resolution.”
One of the most challenging aspects of all this is that, with some Covid-19 restrictions remaining in place, many people cannot physically check in with their families during these turbulent times. During troubles in the past, meeting with neighbours, parents, siblings and friends to talk about fears over a cup of tea or stiff drink was mandatory. I have many childhood memories of piling into the car with my family and heading to my uncle’s house to watch the news unfold on his Sky TV service. We’d eat cake, drink tea and listen to our elders argue and contemplate. There would be hugs, gentle shoulder squeezes and, at the end, an opportunity to come together with a newfound sense of clarity. Being unable to process the unrest within our communities and family circles makes this situation even harder.
As things look precarious for Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, politicians are continuing to meet to address the violence. Meanwhile, the city sits on edge, holding its breath, hoping that a resolution can come swiftly and allow us, once again, to rebuild and rise from the ashes. Sadly, this time many feel that, unless the real inequalities and poverty that exist here are addressed, the scenes of this week may not be a one off.