‘The fear is that this will get bigger’: six nights of rioting in Northern Ireland

It is not hard finding the next riot spot in Northern Ireland. You can check Facebook or other social media platforms for locations and times. You can follow young people who visit petrol stations to fill up jerry cans. Or you can tag along with older people who gather, phones in hand, to watch and record the show.

One older woman came to Lanark Way off the Shankill Road on Wednesday in a coat and bathrobe for what promised to be a long, cold, eventful evening. “Not long now,” said a man to no one in particular.

The soon-to-be rioters were young males, many teenagers, dressed almost identically in dark fleeces and tracksuits. They made their preparations openly and with method, even swagger, conscious that they had an audience of several hundred people.

Some collected rocks from an adjacent wasteground, forming little piles on the pavement and stuffing the smaller rocks in pockets. Others pulled pallets from a pyramid of wood – a bonfire for the summer marching season – and made a fire in the middle of the road. Tyres were added, sending a black plume into a darkening sky.

The atmosphere was giddy. Boys aged around 17, accompanied by younger apprentices, appeared with brown bottles, some filled with liquid. Everyone eyed the bottles.

Kevin Scott, a Belfast Telegraph photographer, was assaulted and his camera was smashed.

With the street blocked off and a fire blazing, white police Land Rovers arrived, lights flashing but sirens not blaring, and the fusillade began.

Rocks, bottles and petrol bombs crashed off the vehicles. Spectators took their cue to scatter back, or return home, and leave the stage to the main performers.

Two youths entered a Translink doubledecker bus emptied of driver and passengers. An older man appeared to guard the entrance, like a steward, while they fiddled with the controls. They exited, the bus rolled and a petrol bomb exploded inside, creating a fireball on wheels.

A vehicle that connects the city, connects people, destroyed by children of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that drew a line under the Troubles: it was a dispiriting spectacle.

Workers clear a bus from the road
Belfast city council workers clear the remains of a burnt-out bus on the loyalist Shankill Road on Thursday. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty

Six nights of disturbances across Northern Ireland have left 55 police officers injured and aggravated a political crisis that encompasses policing, Brexit and the endless tug-of-war between nationalists and unionists.

“Last night was at a scale we haven’t seen in Belfast or further afield in Northern Ireland for a number of years,” said the assistant chief constable, Jonathan Roberts. “We are very, very lucky no one was seriously injured or killed last night given in particular the large number of petrol bombs thrown.”

Translink said the bus driver was very shaken but physically unhurt. Ten people have been arrested over the past week, one of them a 13-year-old boy.

The British and Irish governments expressed grave concern that scenes supposedly consigned to history had returned. The region’s power-sharing executive at Stormont held an emergency meeting with Simon Byrne, the chief constable. In the assembly chamber, politicians from all parties condemned the violence. Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, planned to meet faith, community and political leaders.

Three police officers patrol on foot
Police Service of Northern Ireland officers patrol the Cloughfern area of Newtownabbey. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Observer

But there were reports that loyalists are planning fresh protests this weekend. And there was no sign of a detente between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) to chart a way out of the crisis.

In some ways things are not as bad as they look. The protests have been small, usually involving just a few dozen people. The main loyalist paramilitary groups have not thrown their weight behind the protests. The Stormont assembly and executive are still functioning and giving primacy to peaceful, constitutional politics. No one has died.

But the undercurrents driving the unrest are deep and turbulent.

“We’re second-class citizens. Protestants are second-class citizens, it’s not right,” said Jay, a 16-year-old, as his friends prepared to skirmish with police.

They repeated grievances like a mantra: second-class citizens, picked on by police, abandoned by unionist parties, betrayed by government and, worst of all, bested by nationalists.

According to this perspective, nationalists were able to flout pandemic rules at a huge funeral for Bobby Storey, an IRA commander, last summer because the police are now biased towards Sinn Féin; the DUP rolled over and let Boris Johnson weaken Northern Ireland’s link to the UK to clinch a Brexit deal; loyalism has been ignored and trampled on and the only way to get attention, to hit back, is to cause some mayhem.

“Youse weren’t here till we started lighting fires,” said one youth, spotting a reporter’s notebook.

Some analysts believe that the DUP has demanded the chief constable’s resignation over the Storey funeral policing to stoke the controversy and deflect loyalist anger over the party’s role in creating the Irish Sea border.

“If they are in a tight corner, they whip up unionist insecurities, give loyalist paramilitaries a longer leash and sit back and watch while the country goes up in flames,” Tom Collins wrote in the Irish News, a Belfast daily he used to edit.

Lanark Way peace gates, which divide the nationalist Catholic Springfield Road from the Protestant Shankill Road.
Lanark Way peace gates are closed on Wednesday. The gates divide the nationalist Catholic Springfield Road from the Protestant Shankill Road. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Observer

Middle-aged men have hovered in the middle of some riots, prompting suspicion that elements of loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association are orchestrating events. This could be to let kids blow off steam, to stiffen the resolve of unionist leaders, to punish the police for a recent spate of arrests and drug busts, or all of the above.

The irony is that in Northern Ireland’s centenary year it is unionists and loyalists, not nationalists or republicans, who seek to highlight the region’s shortcomings and show that this part of the UK, post-Brexit, doesn’t work.

In Belfast on Wednesday night, however, some nationalists were happy to help them make the case. During the day they had monitored loyalist social media postings about the Lanark Way protest, due to start at 5pm. They gathered on Springfield Road on the other side of the so-called peace wall and launched rocks and bottles into the loyalist side.

A barrage of stone, glass and flaming petrol came in response, a sectarian air battle peppered with sectarian insults. One of the gates caught fire and was breached, with interlopers briefly milling in enemy territory. For a fleeting moment it resembled 1969, the dawn of the Troubles, when mobs burnt homes, but the skirmish ended without serious injury.

“It’s very disheartening,” said Cailin McCaffery, 25, a postgraduate researcher on the Springhill Road side, as smoke coiled over the Shankill. “The PUL [Protestant Unionist Loyalist] community is destroying its own community.”

Northern Ireland had progressed greatly since the Good Friday agreement, for instance the burgeoning cross-community support for LGBT rights, yet here were Catholic teenagers sucked into a tribal battle with Protestant teenagers living over the wall, said McCaffery. “The fear is that the disturbances will get bigger. We don’t want to relive what our parents lived.”

On Thursday morning, calm and a sense of normality returned to the Shankill Road, with traffic trundling past the scorched carcass of the double-decker. The wheels were still smoking.

The Guardian

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