Vehicles on fire, jets of Molotov cocktails … Belfast experienced a new episode of violence on the night of Wednesday to Thursday, condemned by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. For several days, Northern Ireland has been shaken by riots, revealing a deep unease linked to the feeling of betrayal of Unionists since Brexit.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned yet another night of violence in Northern Ireland, after protesters threw Molotov cocktails and a bus was set on fire in Belfast on the night of Wednesday 7 to Thursday 8 April.
Crowds gathered on Lanark Way in Belfast “where a bus was set on fire,” Northern Ireland police said.
“The way to resolve differences is through dialogue and not through violence or crime,” Boris Johnson tweeted late Wednesday, while expressing “deep concern”.
I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland, especially attacks on PSNI who are protecting the public and businesses, attacks on a bus driver and the assault of a journalist. The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.
– Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) April 7, 2021
Fires have been reported on Lanark Way, where huge metal barriers separate Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, according to the BBC correspondent.
“Hundreds of people on each side threw Molotov cocktails,” she tweeted. The arrival of the police has considerably reduced the violence, she added.
Metro traffic in the area has been suspended, the Press Association reported.
Northern Irish Prime Minister Arlene Foster said: “This is not a protest. It is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalty.”
This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalty. They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.
My thoughts are with the bus driver. https://t.co/2JRcOb6s8C
– Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@DUPleader) April 7, 2021
Brexit in the background
The clashes that have rocked Northern Ireland in recent days show that the fire is smoldering in the British province, where the consequences of Brexit are creating a feeling of betrayal among unionists attached to the crown.
Last week, violence first erupted in the city of Londonderry, before spreading to a loyalist neighborhood in and around Belfast over Easter weekend.
Small groups of masked youths set cars on fire and threw Molotov cocktails and projectiles at police, injuring 41 law enforcement personnel.
>> See also: Northern Ireland: Sacred Union in the face of Brexit aberrations
“There is no doubt that Brexit and the advent of the protocol ‘introducing controls on goods arriving from Great Britain’ have seriously undermined the balance of power,” said Duncan Morrow, professor of political science at Ulster university. “It had been brewing for months,” he told AFP.
These incidents resurface the specter of three bloody decades of “Troubles” between Republicans and Unionists, which left 3,500 dead.
The peace agreement signed in 1998 blurred the border between the British province and the Republic of Ireland, but Brexit weakened the delicate balance, requiring the introduction of customs controls between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
After tough negotiations, London and Brussels managed to agree on a solution, the Northern Irish Protocol, which avoids the return to a physical border on the island of Ireland by moving controls in ports Northern Irish.
“They denied the existence of any border, even though these borders were being erected”
Despite a grace period intended to allow businesses to adjust, the new arrangements, which in effect keep Northern Ireland in the European customs union and single market, are causing supply disruptions. But beyond that, many unionists feel a sense of betrayal.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson “has promised unhindered access, which is not the case,” Northern Irish Justice Minister Naomi Long told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday. “They denied the existence of any border, even though those borders were being erected.”
According to Belfast Telegraph police / justice specialist Allison Morris, rioters have little interest in the complexities of trade issues arising from Brexit, but “are angry”.
“They understand that they were betrayed precisely by the UK government to which their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents displayed slavish loyalty,” she wrote.
Some also believe that Brexit negotiators have caved in to nationalists who have tacitly threatened a bloody response to the prospect of any resumption of Irish border controls.
Weakening of unionists
But Brexit is just one aspect of a larger crisis among Unionists in Northern Ireland.
In 2017, they lost their historic majority in the Stormont Regional Assembly. Then in 2019, the British elections for the first time sent more Nationalist MPs than Unionists to Westminster.
There are also signs of a demographic movement, with the younger generation, towards the nationalists, giving the unionists the feeling of being a besieged minority.
Brexit has also rekindled a more intense debate on the question of the unification of Ireland, with the administration of new US President Joe Biden warning the UK against backtracking on the 1998 peace process.