Crowds, including children ages 12 or 13, crashed through a peaceful concrete wall west of Belfast separating a loyal British Protestant neighborhood from an Irish nationalist Catholic area. Police fired rubber bullets at the crowd, and a nearby city bus was hijacked and set on fire.
Northern Ireland has seen sporadic outbreaks of street violence since the Good Friday 1998 peace deal that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant bloodshed over the status of the region in which more than 3,000 people died.
But Northern Ireland Assistant Police Chief Jonathan Roberts said Wednesday’s mutilation was on a scale we have not seen in recent years. He said 55 police officers had been injured over several nights of disorder and was fortunate that no one was seriously injured or killed.
There was a further outbreak of violence Thursday night in the nationalist Springfield Road area of Belfast, where youths threw stones at police, who responded with a water cannon explosion.
The British split from the EU has highlighted the disputed status of Northern Ireland, where some people identify as British and want to stay part of the UK, while others see themselves as Irish and seek unity with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, a member and BE.
Riots have erupted over the past week mainly in loyal areas, Protestants amid rising tensions over post-Brexit trade rules and deteriorating relations between the parties in the Protestant-Catholic government of Belfast’s power-sharing.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the riots, saying the way to resolve disputes is through dialogue, not violence or crime. He sent Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to Belfast for talks with the region’s political leaders.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was concerned about the violence and we join British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.
Meanwhile, the assembly and the Northern Ireland-based government in Belfast held emergency meetings on Thursday and called for an end to the violence.
First Minister Arlene Foster, of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, warned that when politics is perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair. First Deputy Minister Michelle ONeill, of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, called the violence utterly miserable.
Despite the united message, Northern Ireland politicians are deeply divided and street events are in many cases beyond their control.
As many predicted, the situation has been destabilized by the departure of the British from the EU after almost 50 years of membership which became final on 31 December.
A post-Brexit UK and EU trade agreement has established customs and border controls on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The agreement was created to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland because an open Irish border has helped support the peace-building process.
But unionists say the new controls lead to the creation of a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something they fear could undermine regions located in the UK.
Recent unrest followed riots over the long Easter weekend in pro-British unionist areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, which saw burning cars and debris and petrol bombs being thrown at police officers.
Some politicians and police have accused illegal paramilitary groups that remain a force in working-class communities of inciting young people to cause mutilation. They expressed anger that a new generation was being exposed and withdrawing from the violence.
Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long, from the Alliance Central Party, said she was horrified to see the video of adults standing cheering and cheering and encouraging young people as they wreaked havoc in their community.
This is nothing less than child abuse, she said.
Both Britain and the EU have expressed concern about how the Brexit deal works, and the Democratic Unionist Party wants it annulled. But any long-term solution will require political commitment that manifests itself in the absence. Britain and the EU are arguing over new trade arrangements and showing little of the goodwill needed to make their new relationship work. Sinn Fein and the DUP have blamed each other for the deteriorating situation.
Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queens Belfast University and a senior UK associate at a think tank in Changing Europe, said unionists felt the Northern Ireland country was under threat in the union and they felt betrayed by London.
Unionists are also angry with a police decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander in June. Bobby Storey’s funeral drew a large crowd, despite coronavirus rules banning mass gatherings.
The main union parties have demanded the resignation of the Northern Ireland police chief over the controversy, claiming he has lost the trust of their community.
You have a very sparkling political atmosphere in which those who try to promote calm and restraint are harmed, Hayward said. It’s really easy to see how it can get worse.
Lawless reported from London.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
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