On March 29, police officers were targeted in a petrol bomb attack in a predominately unionist area of Tullymore, in Derry/Londonderry, after an attempt to break up a crowd of approximately 40 people. For five nights, similar scenes unfolded in the city.
By Friday, April 2, the disorder spread to south Belfast, where a small protest descended into an attack on police in a loyalist pocket of the Sandy Row area, where 15 police officers were left with burns, head and leg injuries.
Belfast District Commander Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said that officers were “subjected to a sustained attack by rioters who have thrown a number of objects at police, including heavy masonry, metal rods, fireworks and manhole covers.”
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Why is this happening?
Storey’s funeral drew crowds of around 2,000 people.
Loyalist communities have accused authorities of partisan hypocrisy around that decision, saying that they had taken the decision to cancel their traditional Twelfth of July parades last summer due to Covid-19 and had missed out on events and attending funerals of loved ones because they had adhered to those restrictions.
But many analysts also point to the recent and successful police crackdown on drug gangs and criminal activity supported and run by loyalist paramilitary forces.
Who is rioting?
Most of the rioters are young people, with some participants as young as 12, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
The first days of the violence, which escalated over Easter weekend, took place in predominantly loyalist areas in the cities of Belfast and Derry/Londonderry and the towns of Newtownabbey, Ballymena and Carrickfergus.
But that dynamic changed on Wednesday in west Belfast, where rioters from loyalist and nationalist communities clashed along the so-called peace line — a gated wall separating predominately unionist and nationalist neighborhoods from one another.
At one point, police struggled to close a gate designed to separate the areas during the violence, where petrol bombs, bottles, masonry and fireworks were thrown.
At times there were upwards of 600 people present, police said.
Earlier on Wednesday, a bus was also hijacked and set alight on Lanark Way near the junction with Shankill Road, where a press photographer was also attacked.
In some videos of the disorder shared on social media, adults can be seen cheering and egging on children to undertake the violent acts, raising deep-seated concerns that the violence could be orchestrated by paramilitary groups.
On Thursday, the PSNI said they were still attempting to confirm “whether or not paramilitary groups were involved” in the rioting. Police did not say that there was paramilitary involvement, however PSNI Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said it was “clear there was a degree of organization” to the violence.
On Thursday evening, clashes continued on Springfield Road in Belfast, with protesters throwing stones at police vehicles on the nationalist side of the peace line. Officers in riot gear, with dogs and a water cannon, moved in to disperse those involved.
The South Belfast UPRG became the first loyalist group to call for an end to the disorder on Thursday. The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a group that includes representatives of unionist paramilitaries and which is also associated with the UPRG, said in a Friday statement that “none of their associated groups have been involved either directly or indirectly in the violence witnessed in recent days.” It added that “the right to peaceful protest is a fundamental human right” but that all actions taken by members of the loyalist community “should be entirely peaceful.”
The PSNI ruled out the involvement of loyalist paramilitaries in orchestrating the violence on Friday, appearing to walk back their previous assessment.
Speaking at a press conference, Roberts said their “overall assessment” was that the violence that has taken place “is not orchestrated by a group, in the name of that group.”
“There are certainly people who have been engaged in violence who are nothing to do with any illegal organization,” he said.
“We feel that there may be some people who could have connection to proscribed organizations, who have been present on the scenes of violence, but we don’t believe it’s been sanctioned and organized by prescribed organizations for peaceful protests,” he added.
There were “reports of disorder” in the Tiger Bay’s area of Belfast on Friday evening, PSNI said in a statement. Media footage from the area showed a car was set on fire on Friday evening as riot police lined the street. Police have not specifically addressed this incident.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Northern Ireland Police Chief Superintendent Muir Clark said: “We would appeal for calm in the area and ask anyone who has any influence in communities please, use that influence to ensure young people do not get caught up in criminality and that they are kept safe and away from harm tonight.”
What does Brexit have to do with this?
The riots are unfolding amid rising anger over a specific part of the Brexit agreement.
The GFA marked an end to the Troubles — a term used to describe the period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s until its signing in 1998.
But after the UK left the EU (and its single market), a new plan — the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol — was implemented.
The NI Protocol aims to eliminate the need for border controls between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member).
Northern Ireland Justice minister Naomi Long said on Wednesday that the UK government’s “dishonesty and the lack of clarity around these issues has contributed to a sense of anger in parts of our community,” saying that the government downplayed the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland.
Last month, the Loyalist Communities Council said it was withdrawing its support for the GFA, also known as the Belfast Agreement.
What are political leaders saying?
The Irish premier Micheál Martin — known as the Taoiseach — and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke on Thursday.
“Stressing that violence is unacceptable, they called for calm,” a statement from Martin’s office said.
“The way forward is through dialogue and working the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement,” it added.
On Thursday, the White House joined Northern Irish, British and Irish leaders to express concern over the violence, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price warning that the GFA must not “become a casualty of Brexit.”
Long, the Northern Irish justice minister, has called on people to “stop, before lives are lost.”
At an emergency meeting of Northern Ireland’s government on Thursday, First Minister Arlene Foster said the violence has tarnished the country’s reputation in its centenary year.
“We should all know well that when politics fail or are perceived to be failing in Northern Ireland, then those who fill the vacuum offer destruction and despair. We cannot allow a new generation of our young people to fall victim to that path or be preyed upon by someone who prefers the shadows, to the light,” Foster told the Northern Irish Assembly.
Is there any sign of the violence subsiding?
Both communities are appealing for calm. However, it is not clear if that call will be heard.
Protests are expected in the area on Saturday which is the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
Journalist Peter Taggart, CNN’s Emmet Lyons, Amy Cassidy, Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.