Chaos has also spilled over in unionist areas in Londonderry and other towns in County Antrim.
Who is involved?
Most of the violence has been in loyalist areas, such as Carrickfergus and Newtonabbey.
The rioters are mostly young men, in small groups of about 20 or 30 people. In some cases children have been involved, too – including one child as young as 12.
It has lead to claims that the violence is being manipulated by gangs and organised criminals who are staying off the front lines.
Why are people rioting?
The causes of violence may be attributed to a number of factors.
Loyalists in Northern Ireland are angry that the UK’s post-Brexit trading agreements with the EU have created barriers between the region and the rest of Britain.
The arrangement with Brussels – known as the Northern Ireland Protocol – is controversial.
The Government had promised that there would be no barriers to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland when the UK left the EU. But since Brexit, there have been checks on food and goods moving between Europe and Northern Ireland which have been disruptive.
The new regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has effectively created a border in the Irish Sea and, unionists say, has undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
The border has provoked a sense of betrayal in unionists. Naomi Long, Northern Ireland’s justice minister, directly accused Boris Johnson of “dishonesty” over the border and said it had contributed to loyalist anger.
The EU is suing Britain over what it says is a breach of the Brexit agreement and international law, while Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, has also sought a court challenge to the Protocol. The Government insists it has acted lawfully.
For loyalists, the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June hardened a long-standing perception held by many within their community that the institutions of the state afford preferential treatment to republicans.
For apparent confirmation, they pointed to police engagement with the Sinn Fein funeral organisers prior to an event that saw around 2,000 people take to the streets of west Belfast when tight limits on public gatherings were in place.
This interaction with the planners was one reason why senior prosecutors concluded any prosecution of Ms O’Neill and her colleagues was doomed to fail – the other being the “incoherent” nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 regulations at the time.
Criticism of the approach by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over the funeral was not confined to hard-line loyalists, and all the main unionist parties called for Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.
Earlier this week DUP First Minister Arlene Foster signalled she would no longer meet with Mr Byrne. She subsequently pulled back from that position.
Before the unionist clamour for Mr Byrne’s head, and claims of “two-tier” policing, two months ago the PSNI chief was facing similar claims of discriminatory behaviour from within nationalism.
Those were prompted by a controversial police operation in Belfast that saw a man badly injured in a loyalist gun massacre during the Troubles arrested at the scene of a commemoration event after officers intervened to probe suspected Covid regulation breaches.
Following that incident at the site of the 1992 Ormeau Road betting shop murders, Ms O’Neill claimed there was a “crisis in confidence” in the PSNI among nationalists, albeit she stopped short of calling for Mr Byrne to quit.
The Protocol and funeral controversy have not created the loyalist perception that the system is weighed against them, but have built upon a narrative articulated by an increasing number within loyalism that the peace process – particularly the Good Friday accord of 1998 – has handed them a raw deal.
They cite underinvestment and deprivation in loyalist working class areas as further proof that they have missed out on the gains of peace.
Nationalists and republicans reject this premise, insisting their communities have experienced just as many problems with poverty and unemployment since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Paramilitary elements are undoubtedly involved in much of the disorder witnessed across the region in recent days – either directly or by orchestrating young people to riot on their behalf.
In some areas, such as Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, the PSNI believes paramilitary involvement is less motivated by Brexit or the Storey funeral and more to do with a rogue faction – the South East Antrim UDA – reacting to recent police operations targeting its criminal empire.
6. Political crisis
Non-unionist parties have accused Mrs Foster and other unionist political leaders of stoking tensions, not only in relation to the Storey funeral but also in respect of the Irish Sea border.
The DUP leader and other prominent voices within unionism and loyalism insist they are only reflecting genuinely held concerns they say must be addressed – specifically by way of Mr Byrne’s resignation and the binning of the Protocol.
Mrs Foster’s initial reluctance to engage with the region’s police chief during a time of escalating street violence, and coming only weeks after she met with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to discuss the Brexit fall-out, drew sharp criticism from political rivals.
On Thursday, the Biden administration joined efforts to diffuse the tensions, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters: “We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland and we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.
“We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace.”
In an interview with the Telegraph on Thursday, the Government’s former top adviser on Northern Ireland hit out at “grossly irresponsible” attempts to blame Brexit for rioting among loyalists. Lord Caine, who served as special adviser to six Northern Ireland secretaries, spoke out amid a growing political blame game over the violence which has descended across the province.
“It’s irresponsible and it betrays a wilful ignorance of Northern Irish politics,” he added. “It’s not just about politics, it’s about people who run criminal empires and who seek to exert influence and control over communities.”
“Paramilitarism is often a cloak of convenience for people who are mainly interested in profiting out of criminality.”