LONDON – A hijacked bus, bombarded with stones, then set on fire. Riots of masked youths, launching missiles and homemade bombs. A press photographer attacked in the streets.
For nearly a week, scenes of violence familiar from Northern Ireland’s brutal past have returned in a stark warning of the fragility of a peace process, conceived more than two decades ago, which is subject to growing political and sectarian pressure.
Amid the disputed fallout from Brexit, politicians have highlighted different causes of an explosion of anger on the part of parts of the Protestant community, known as unionist or loyalist, which is determined to keep its link with the rest of the United Kingdom.
But analysts agree that six consecutive nights of violence, in which 55 police officers were injured and 10 arrests made, mark a worrying trend.
“I think it’s very serious, it’s easy to see how things can escalate and it’s hard to see how things can calm down,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. .
In the feverish aftermath of Brexit, she added, Unionists “feel betrayed by the British government and feel that Northern Ireland’s place in the union is under great pressure as a result, so that the feeling of insecurity definitely increases the stakes. “
Jonathan Caine, a member of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords and a former adviser to six Northern Ireland secretaries, said the violence reflected dangerous tensions.
“By historical standards it is not out of control, but it could be and the reason is not just the reaction to Brexit,” he said. “There are deeply rooted anxieties within the Unionist community and a perception that they have been left behind, that everything is not addressed to them but to the Republicans”, he added, referring to parts of the Roman Catholic population who are in favor of a united Ireland.
With riots among some as young as 13, the violence shocked politicians, prompting the condemnation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, who called Thursday to restoration of calm. On Thursday, bus drivers parked in front of city hall to protest an incident in which one of their colleagues was hijacked and his vehicle burned.
To add to concerns, the latest violence has taken place in sensitive areas of Belfast, on the border between areas populated mainly by Protestant communities and those where predominantly Roman Catholics live, increasing the chances of a violent response.
Despite the Good Friday Accord of 1998 which largely ended decades of bloodshed known as the Troubles, neither sectarian violence nor the paramilitary groups behind it ever fully disappeared from Northern Ireland.
Some people believe dark groups are exploiting sectarian anxieties and frustrations over Covid-19 restrictions to cause trouble for police officers who have cracked down on the groups’ criminal activities.
Although tensions have escalated in recent weeks, it was an incident dating back several months that was the catalyst for the most recent violence, which saw rioters burning tires and trash in the streets.
In June 2020, despite Covid-19 rules banning large gatherings, police authorized a funeral to be held after the death of Bobby Storey, who was believed to be the intelligence chief of the Irish Republican Army, an armed group dedicated to a united Ireland which waged a violent campaign against British forces during the so-called unrest.
Among the approximately 2,000 people who attended his funeral were high-ranking members of Sinn Fein, a party that mainly represents Roman Catholic voters. The party was once considered the political wing of the IRA, but now plays an important role in the democratic system of power sharing in Belfast.
A decision last week not to prosecute mourners for violating Covid regulations has infuriated Unionists, sparked protests and prompted Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Arlene Foster to demand the resignation of the police chief , Simon Byrne, for his funeral management.
Mr Caine said that in Northern Ireland police decisions are particularly difficult given the risk of causing unrest and the security forces can be placed in an impossible position. Nonetheless, the lack of prosecution “has played into the feeling among some Unionists that this is a rule for Sinn Fein and another for the rest of us,” he said.
Since the 1998 peace agreement, there has been discontent among some Unionists “and a perception that it was a victory for the Republicans, that they have all the advantages and that the loyalists have nothing”, he said. he added.
But tensions have also been mounting since Britain has completed the final stages of Brexit January 1st. This ended a system where businesses in Northern Ireland shared the same business rules as those in Ireland, which is still part of the European Union.
During the interminable Brexit negotiations, a lot of energy has been devoted to avoiding the need for checks on goods at Northern Ireland’s very sensitive land border with Ireland.
Under an agreement in a protocol signed by Mr Johnson, Northern Ireland has been granted special economic status which leaves it straddling the trading systems of the UK and the European Union.
“Boris Johnson told Unionists that there would be no border in the Irish Sea, even on January 1, they were told we would never see the integrity of the UK’s single market undermined, so they feel betrayed by protocol “. said Professor Hayward.
For Northern Ireland’s biggest political force, the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ms Foster, the situation is particularly delicate. He campaigned for Brexit and opposed a softer version that was proposed by former British Prime Minister Theresa May, ultimately resulting in a version that delivers exactly what she didn’t want: a more tangible and visible separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. The United Kingdom.
However, the European Union also contributed to the crisis when it briefly announced in January plans to suspend the protocol by triggering an emergency mechanism in a dispute over vaccine supply. Although the British government also threatened to break the treaty on a separate issue – and the European Union reversed its decision in a few hours – which united the Unionists in anger.
“These few hours on January 29 changed everything, ”said Professor Hayward, who added that the Brussels decision summed up Unionist suspicions about the protocol and distracted senior politicians from grudgingly accepting it to outright opposition. and simple.
With Unionist support for the protocol waning, confidence in the police in question, and Brexit friction between the British and Irish governments, it might be difficult to quell the violence.
“In the past, these things have been mitigated by very cautious and well-supported actions by community workers in the field, supported by the political environment, rhetoric and manifestations of successful peace at the highest levels – including British and Irish. relationship, ”said Professor Hayward.
“You are looking around now,” she added, “And think: all of these things are really under pressure.”