Northern Ireland: Why is there violence in Belfast?

In recent days, Northern Ireland has been beset by some of the worst violence in decades as loyalists and nationalists have clashed with police in west Belfast.

On Wednesday a bus was firebombed and 55 officers were injured as organised groups threw stones, fireworks and petrol bombs. Unrest erupted again on Thursday night – the seventh straight night of trouble.

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. 

1. Brexit

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.

Read more: Sherelle Jacobs: Northern Ireland backlash to Brexit fudge threatens the Union

Police pushed back nationalists in Belfast amid more unrest on Thursday night


Police pushed back nationalists in Belfast amid more unrest on Thursday night


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

2. Sinn Fein funeral

There is also anger in Belfast after the announcement by prosecutors last week that no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who attended a huge republican funeral during the pandemic.

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.

Read more: John Walsh: Old wounds and new fears inflame the anarchy in Belfast

About 2,000 people took to the streets for the funeral of Bobby Storey despite Covid restrictions


About 2,000 people took to the streets for the funeral of Bobby Storey despite Covid restrictions


Credit: PA

3. Police failings

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.

Read more: Owen Polley: Brexit divisions and lockdown fatigue are fuelling violence in Northern Ireland 

4. Anti-loyalist ‘bias’

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.

Police have been accused of losing the trust of their communities


Police have been accused of losing the trust of their communities


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

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.

Read more: Eliot Wilson UK politicians don’t understand Norther Ireland and never have

5. Gangs and organised crime

In several loyalist working class areas, many still in the grip of the malign influence of paramilitary gangs, sporadic rioting has since flared.

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.

Many of the rioters appear to be young men, leading to fears that youths in the area are being organised by shadowy criminal groups


Many of the rioters appear to be young men, leading to fears that youths in the area are being organised by shadowy criminal groups


Credit: SPLASH NEWS

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.

In addition, since the Brexit referendum Sinn Fein has pushed its agenda for a border poll on Irish unity, a position that is gaining support in Ireland.

What have politicians said?

Boris Johnson has condemned the violence, as have leaders in Stormont, Dublin and across Europe.

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.”

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster have bothe been accused of stirring up political tensions


Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster have bothe been accused of stirring up political tensions


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

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.” 

What happens next?

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, travelled to Belfast on Thursday as the Stormont Assembly was recalled to hold an urgent debate. 

Mr Lewis spoke to all five leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties, including Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, and further talks will be held on Friday.

Read more: Telegraph View: Tensions in Northern Ireland have political undercurrents

More Stories
Covid-19 pandemic: Trump urged to encourage supporters to get jabs