By Ella Lloyd | Contributor
This Month, Northern Ireland saw some of the worst violence it has had for years. Nearly ninety police officers have been injured in rioting which lasted for 12 days. It began in the Waterside area of Derry/Londonderry before spreading to Belfast, Carrickfergus, and Newtownabbey.
The rioting was mostly confined to unionist areas (those who wish for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK), until the 7th of April, where petrol bombs were thrown in both directions over a ‘peace wall’ which separates the, majority Protestant, unionist Shankhill Road from the, majority Catholic, nationalist (those who wish for Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland) Springfield Road in West Belfast.
Eighteen people were arrested and fifteen charged over the violence.
This unrest is small scale and localized compared to what the region saw during the Troubles.
The beginning of the unrest coincided with the Public Prosecution Services’ decision not to prosecute anyone in relation to the funeral of Bobby Storey. Storey was the Head of Intelligence for the IRA in the 1990s. His funeral was attended by around 2000 people including 24 Sinn Fein politicians, and the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, in June last year when there were strict limits on gatherings. This decision received backlash from unionist politicians, who saw this as damaging to unionist communities’ confidence in policing. It’s been announced that a review of the decision will take place.
But there’s also been recent claims of police discrimination from nationalists, after an incident at a commemoration for the 1992 Ormeau Road Betting Shop Murders.
However, tensions have been rising in unionist communities in recent months surrounding the Irish Sea Border. At the beginning of March, the unionist communities Council, which represents multiple loyalist paramilitaries, withdrew its support for the Good Friday Agreement over concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol. The border in the Irish Sea is controversial because it physically and symbolically separates Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The protocol highlights a deep sense of unease in unionist communities.
Speaking to BBC News NI’s Good Morning Ulster, Police Federation Chair, Mark Lindsay, said there was ‘obviously paramilitary involvement’. The violence has unfolded in areas where it’s known that unionist paramilitaries have significant power and influence. Although there’s no certain evidence that paramilitaries have organised the rioting, they’ve been critisised for allowing it to go ahead and not using their influence to stop it.
There’s also accusations that the South East Antrim UDA have used the riots to retaliate to the police’s crackdown on their criminal activity- namely drug related offences. Adults associated with these organisations are also accused of exploiting vulnerable children during the violence, which involved children as young as twelve.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have condemned the violence, including the Taoiseach, and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. Across the Atlatic, The White House issued a statement saying they were ‘concerned’ by the violence. President Biden, who is of Irish descent, has repeatedly expressed his commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill has appealed for young people to not get involved in violence, as has Arlene Foster, and has stressed that criminal elements orchestrating violence do not care about young people.
The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called for the British Government to accept that their ‘dishonesty’ over Brexit to unionist communities is partly to blame, and also for unionist leaders to take responsibility for ‘incendiary rhetoric’ which has also impacted the violence.
Arlene Foster has been criticised for a tweet where she said that the rioters do not represent unionism, but are taking the focus off the ‘real criminals’ in Sinn Fein.
The violence seemed to end after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, as unionist groups called for protests to be stopped in respect. However, many of the issues that caused the violence still remain and, many are wary that more violence could occur. In particular, there are fears of trouble during Marching Season this summer, which is a historically volatile time of year.
twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.