Violence erupted once again in Northern Ireland tonight as rioters descended upon the streets amid loyalist anger over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Rioters set furniture and bins alight on Shankill Road, Belfast, close to where a bus was torched earlier this month, as police officers tried to maintain order and came under sporadic attack.
Calm was restored to the scene by around 9pm however some groups remained in the area and police are monitoring a crowd gathered across Lanark Way and the Shankill Road on the loyalist side of the nearby peace line.
Elsewhere, loyalist protesters were seen walking towards Newtownards police station while holding an anti-Northern Ireland Protocol banner.
It came after the Loyalist Communities Council held a small demonstration outside Irish government offices in Belfast and vowed to resume protest action against post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created new barriers and bureaucracy on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
They claim the Northern Ireland Protocol has undermined the region’s place within the Union.
Furniture was set alight as rioters descended upon Shankill Road in Belfast during another night of violence in Northern Ireland
Police officers arrive to the scene as loyalist protesters set furniture alight amid loyalist anger over the post-Brexit trading arrangements
Loyalist protesters throw furniture into a fire on Lanark Way in Belfast as officers try to maintain order in Northern Ireland
Youths walks across the street as police officers tried to maintain order and came under sporadic attack on another night of disorder
Earlier this month, 55 officers were injured in a week of clashes between nationalists and pro-British loyalists at the so-called ‘peace wall’ on Springfield Road.
Despite cross-party pleas from politicians to stay away, around 100 rioters descended on the area and were met with heavily-clad officers with shields and dogs.
They were warned repeatedly they would be targeted with the water cannon if they did not disperse, which most did after the police vehicle started spraying.
Amid the rising tensions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and even Joe Biden’s White House joined calls appealing to the protesters to end the violence, which has involved children as young as 13, purportedly encouraged by their parents.
This month, ministers in the Stormont Executive also condemned the violence and MLAs unanimously passed a motion calling for an end to the disorder.
In a joint statement, the five-party Executive said: ‘We are gravely concerned by the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets over the last week, including those at the Lanark Way interface last night.
‘Attacks on police officers, public services and communities are deplorable and they must stop.
‘Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities.
‘Those who would seek to use and abuse our children and young people to carry out these attacks have no place in our society.
‘While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and for the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm’s way to protect others.
Loyalist protesters were seen walking towards Newtownards police station this evening while holding an anti-Northern Ireland Protocol banner
A protester damages a police van on Lanark Way, near the ‘Peace Gate’ in Belfast, as violence erupts once again in Belfast
Calm was restored to the scene by around 9pm however some groups remained in the area and police are monitoring a crowd. Pictured: Loyalist protesters during further unrest on Lanark Way in Belfast
A group loyalists damage police vehicles on Lanark Way, near the ‘Peace Gate’ in Belfast, amid loyalist anger in Belfast
The latest scenes come after a break of around a week, following a succession of days where violence broke out following a number of loyalist protests across Northern Ireland. Pictured: Furniture is set on fire on another night of disorder in Belfast, Northern Ireland
‘We, and our departments, will continue to work together to maximise the support we can give to communities and the PSNI to prevent further violence and unrest.’ The Stormont Assembly was recalled from Easter recess for an emergency sitting on Thursday to debate the violence, which has mostly flared in loyalist areas.’
This month Northern Ireland’s Education Minister Peter Weir confirmed the reopening of some youth services which operate in areas of heightened community tensions.
Mr Weir said the move is hoped to divert young people from becoming involved in ‘risk taking and dangerous behaviours’.
‘Youth services play a vital role in supporting young people throughout Northern Ireland,’ he said.
‘As a society we should all be appalled at witnessing young people and even children being involved in the recent violence on our streets.
‘At this time it is even more important that youth services are able to meet the needs of young people in these areas.’
Mr Weir added: ‘These measures are intended to safeguard and ensure the welfare of our young people and to divert them from becoming involved in risk taking and dangerous behaviours.’
The latest scenes come after a break of around a week, following a succession of days where violence broke out following a number of loyalist protests across Northern Ireland.
The worst of the trouble came on both sides of the peace wall gates at Lanark Way on April 7 and April 8 where police used plastic bullets and water cannon against the crowds.
Protests were temporarily paused following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh.
Youths burn bins and furniture during a protest on Lanark Way in Belfast as riots continue across Northern Ireland
Protests torch furniture on a street in Belfast as violent clashes continue across the nation over Brexit trading agreements
Loyalist anger at the protocol has been cited as one of the main factors behind the violence that erupted earlier this month.
Another was the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein members for Covid-19 breaches after they attended a mass republican funeral during the pandemic.
There are also more long-standing concerns held by some loyalists that they have missed out on the gains of the peace process in areas such as jobs, investment and housing.
Nationalists reject the contentions and insist their communities experience just as many problems with poverty.
The violence was unanimously condemned across the Stormont Assembly after it was recalled from Easter recess for a special meeting on April 8.
It was also condemned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish premier Micheal Martin, as well as church leaders.
Labour shadow secretary of state Louise Haigh has called for fresh talks to be called to resolve the issues.
Why has violence flared again on the streets of Northern Ireland?
Loyalist youths burn bins and furniture during a protest on Lanark Way, near the ‘Peace Gate’ in Belfast, on April 19
The street disorder that has flared in various parts of Northern Ireland for weeks can be attributed to a multitude of factors.
At its heart is loyalist anger at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.
For loyalism, Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol has undermined their place in the Union.
But it took an event unrelated to the Irish Sea border furore to set a match to resentment that has been simmering since the consequences of exiting the EU became a reality at the start of January.
The announcement by prosecutors last week that no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, for attending a huge republican funeral during the pandemic sparked outrage among some loyalists.
In several loyalist working class areas, many still in the grip of the malign influence of paramilitary gangs, sporadic rioting has since flared.
Belfast, Londonderry, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballymena have all witnessed scenes of violence that many hoped had been consigned to the history books.
There have also been bouts of disorder within republican areas in recent days.
In the most stark, youths on both sides of a west Belfast peace line pelted petrol bombs and other missiles at each other through Wednesday night.
For loyalists, the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June hardened a long-standing perception held by many within their community that the institutions of the state afford preferential treatment to republicans.
For apparent confirmation, they pointed to police engagement with the Sinn Fein funeral organisers prior to an event that saw around 2,000 people take to the streets of west Belfast when tight limits on public gatherings were in place.
This interaction with the planners was one reason why senior prosecutors concluded any prosecution of Ms O’Neill and her colleagues was doomed to fail – the other being the ‘incoherent’ nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 regulations at the time.
Criticism of the PSNI approach was not confined to hard-line elements within loyalism and all the main unionist parties subsequently called for chief constable Simon Byrne to resign, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster has said she will no longer engage with Mr Byrne.
Her lack of communication with the region’s police chief during a time of escalating street violence, and coming only weeks after she met with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to discuss the Brexit fall out, has drawn sharp criticism from political rivals.
Non-unionist parties have accused Mrs Foster and other unionist political leaders of stoking up tensions, not only in relation to the Storey funeral but also in respect of the Irish Sea border.
The DUP leader and other prominent voices within unionism and loyalism insist they are only reflecting genuinely held concerns they say must be addressed – specifically by way of Mr Byrne’s resignation and the binning of the Protocol.
Amid the current unionist clamour for Mr Byrne’s head, and claims of ‘two tier’ policing, it is worth noting that two months ago the PSNI chief constable was facing similar claims of discriminatory behaviour from within nationalism.
Those were prompted by a controversial police operation in Belfast that saw a man badly injured in a loyalist gun massacre during the Troubles arrested at the scene of a commemoration event after officers intervened to probe suspected Covid regulation breaches.
Following that incident at the site of the 1992 Ormeau Road betting shop murders, Ms O’Neill claimed there was a ‘crisis in confidence’ in the PSNI among nationalists, albeit she stopped short of calling for Mr Byrne to quit.
The Protocol and funeral controversy have not created the loyalist perception that the system is weighed against them, but have built upon a narrative articulated by an increasing number within loyalism that the peace process – particularly the Good Friday accord of 1998 – has handed them a raw deal.
They cite underinvestment and deprivation in loyalist working class areas as further proof that they have missed out on the gains of peace.
Nationalists and republicans reject this premise, insisting their communities have experienced just has many problems with poverty and unemployment since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Paramilitary elements are undoubtedly involved in much of the disorder witnessed across the region in recent days – either directly or by orchestrating young people to riot on their behalf.
However, in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus an added factor is at play.
In those areas, the PSNI believes paramilitary involvement is less motivated by Brexit or the Storey funeral and more to do with a rogue faction – the South East Antrim UDA – reacting to recent police operations targeting its criminal empire.