The reasons for the violent riots and protests are quite complex. At the base, however, are the tensions between the two main Northern Irish parties, which are also the two ruling parties. These have worsened in the last period due to developments since Brexit, which has partly distanced Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Initially, the protests were initiated by the unionists (or loyalists), that is, those in favor of the permanence of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, for the most part Protestants. According to local media, the most immediate reason that triggered the riot was the recent decision by the chief of police, Simon Byrne, not to prosecute the approximately 2,000 people who attended a funeral in June 2020, breaking many of the restrictions. in effect to contain the coronavirus. The funeral was that of Bobby Storey, a prominent former member of the IRA, a no longer active military organization fighting against Northern Ireland’s stay in the UK.
The funeral was also attended by 24 members of Sinn Féin, the Northern Irish nationalist party that wants independence from the United Kingdom, of which Storey himself was a part. Sinn Féin is in government with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has opposing views on Northern Ireland’s relationship with the UK. Among those who had gone to the funeral was also Michelle O’Neill, the deputy prime minister of the country, of Sinn Féin. The decision not to prosecute those who attended the funeral was also harshly criticized by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, of the DUP, who called for the resignation of the police chief.
During the protests, the rioting unionists attacked the police with stones, bottles, firecrackers and Molotov cocktails, but also set fire to cars and more generally caused various riots. In addition to the capital, the cities where the greatest clashes occurred were Londonderry, in the north-east of the country, and other centers in the Antrim area, 25 kilometers northeast of Belfast. A bus was hijacked in Belfast on Wednesday night, which was later set on fire.
Prime Minister Foster said the protesters’ actions do not represent unionism and loyalty, and divert attention from those who actually broke the law, namely the Sinn Féin members who attended Storey’s funeral.
According to the British media and experts on the Northern Irish situation, however, the less obvious reasons for the protest are attributable to the consequences of Brexit. The link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom has in fact weakened considerably since 1 January 2021, when the exit from the European Union was complete. The cause is above all of the compromise found in 2019 by Boris Johnson, who resolved the deadlock in the negotiations by accepting that Northern Ireland remain both in the European common market and in the customs union.
If this had not been done, a physical barrier would have been required between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In this way, however, according to the unionists, a trade barrier was created with the rest of the United Kingdom: bureaucratic obstacles have increased considerably, causing, among other things, a shortage of food products in supermarkets. Northern Irish companies soon realized that they were being forced to strengthen their commercial links with Irish companies and the rest of the Union. Unionists therefore fear that they will gradually move away from the United Kingdom and move closer to Ireland.
– Read also: Northern Irish unionists are no longer happy with a piece of the Brexit deal
This is also why in recent days the protests have turned into clashes between unionists and nationalists, that is, the Catholics who support the reunification of Ireland. In Belfast, where Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods are divided by metal, concrete and barbed wire barriers called “Peace Wall” or “Peace Lines”, the two groups have begun to throw Molotov cocktails from one side of the barriers to the other, which are been set on fire and in some cases open. Police have been forced to close many roads to keep rival groups out.
Burning cars burn near the Lanark Way Peace Wall in West Belfast (AP Photo / Peter Morrison)
The large participation in the protests by young people, less involved in the historical divisions between unionists and nationalists, or between Catholics and Protestants, has made the police suspect that the attacks were orchestrated and encouraged by loyalist paramilitary groups, and investigations are underway at the about. The mutual accusations between the two ruling parties, however, are helping to increase the tension between the parties.
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