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Belfast’s Burning: The Blame Game

Published on 6 April 2021 at 16:13

“I Predict a Riot”. 17 years after The Kaiser Chiefs’s single was released, the song rings a familiar tune as it did 1 year (Birmingham Riots) and 7 years (London Riots) after it.

 

Mounting tension in unionist and loyalist communities within Northern Ireland have culminated in the violence seen over the last week.
Loyalist rioting began March 30th in unionist areas of Derry, spreading then to areas in South Belfast on Good Friday. Newtownabbey then experienced unrest on April 3rd with carjackings, arson attacks, and petrol bombs thrown at the police. Carrickfergus in southern County Antrim saw the most troubling activity: roadblocks in certain communities and estates followed by bricks, petrol bombs, and other incendiary material fired at the police on the night of April 4th and April 5th.

 

9 more officers were injured in Ballymena, Co. Antrim during another illegal loyalist parade.

Children as young as 12 were amongst the rioters, leading outlets of the British press to say that there is a “sinister element” and “criminal element” underlying the violence.

 

41 police officers have been injured, the PSNI (Police Service in Northern Ireland) have conformed, and 8 arrests have been made.

 

These are not isolated incidences.
On St Patrick’s Day this year, loyalist activists sprawled the name and personal address of former Taoiseach and now Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar TD (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment) on walls in east Belfast. The graffiti appeared next to a banner animated by armed loyalist militants in balaclavas saying, “The prevention of the erosion of our identity is now our priority. East Belfast Battalion." The UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) logo also appeared.
Former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney TD had his name and address daubed in a similar fashion throughout other areas.
This is not the first instance concerning Mr Varadkar. A threat titled “An ode to Leo Varadkar” also appeared on neighbourhood walls saying the Tánaiste would be “hanged” if he “set foot in Ulster”.

A source within the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) told the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), headed by David Campbell (former chair of the Ulster Unionist Party), that loyalist paramilitaries “have discussed sending letter bombs to the south” and that they “have the capacity” to do so.

As of Good Friday (April 2nd), Mr Varadkar has had to move from his home in Castleknock, Dublin, due to “credible” death threats. He also now requires Special Branch to accompany him anywhere within his new 5km under COVID-19 restrictions.

With the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement 1998 just several days away, it leaves a solemn and sullen feeling that things have escalated to levels not seen since 1985, according to Mr Campbell.

 

What’s at the heart of this, and where are our leaders moving forward?

 

One event that sparked fires was Sinn Féin’s funeral of Republican and former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), Bobby Storey. Held at the end of June 2020, it violated the COVID-19 guidelines in place in Northern Ireland, as over 2,000 were in attendance as opposed to the maximum allowed of 30.
The inciting incident, however, was the decision of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne not to prosecute the 24 Sinn Féin officials being investigated for it. He will face questioning in private over his role in the NI Policing Board after Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, had called on Mr Byrne to resign.

 

Now onto the elephant in the room: the Northern Ireland Protocol, which came into effect January 2021 after the UK had negotiated a Brexit Trade Deal with the EU.
The Protocol’s main objective is to uphold and protect the Good Friday Agreement. Article 1 states:


“This Protocol is without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement in respect of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent, which provides that any change in that status can only be made with the consent of a majority of its people.”

The key effect is a goods and customs check-in the Irish Sea in order to facilitate Northern Ireland’s place within the EU Custom’s Union. This is to ensure avoiding a border on the island of Ireland – a move which would certainly have exploded into violence.

The Northern Ireland Protocol never sat well with Ulster unionists, who are now in the realm of existentialist identity problems with their place in the Union. They are reconciling with their Conservative majority Parliament and government who negotiated and signed the Brexit Deal and Treaty.

 

In effect, however, loyalist groups have reacted more violently to it. Checks on goods have been suspended after workers have been threatened.

Blame for this has been divulged and cast on all sides, with a notable silence from the English.
The PSNI maintain it is in the hands of fringe criminal gangs and the young people being involved.
The DUP have proceeded with their submissions that the Irish government, Coveney and Varadkar in particular, used the threat of violence as leverage for their negotiations with the EU. Arlene Foster has since called on the entire Northern Ireland Protocol to be scrapped.
The LCC has taken a more direct and threatening stance, claiming that ‘If Martin and Varadkar don’t get rid of the Protocol, they’ll face the wrath of loyalism’. The LCC has formally written to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, calling on him to withdraw support from the Good Friday Agreement.


As of now, the LCC has not made any statement or remarks regarding the last week of violence.

Mrs Foster has blamed the violence on the lack of youth centres in a statement made in Fermanagh.
Sinn Féin MLA and policing board member Gerry Kelly accused unionist leadership, "in particular the DUP", of using rhetoric that has caused the violence. Gregory Campbell MP of the DUP fired back, saying, “Kelly and Co need to get real" and accused them of arrogance for “not recognising the major part they played in creating".

Justice Minister Naomi Long called for a stop on all sides “before lives are lost”.

 

What is clear is the necessity for diplomatic relations between all parties involved in an interconnected fashion. Some bear more responsibility than others.
The Irish government need not (and should not) meet with the LCC, a legally established council representing three outlawed paramilitary groups. But the DUP frequently do. And talks must be constructive between the leaders of the Republic and British leaders – whether they are between Boris’s government or the DUP again.

Curbing extremism requires more than policing and talks. An introspection from all parts is needed, especially in our propulsion towards a United Ireland sometime in the near future. Sinn Féin leader noted in her Easter Sunday address that,


“Both governments must prepare for unity. The people must prepare too.
Caithfimid labhairt faoin todhchaí. Caithfimid ullmhú don todhchaí, le chéile.”

 

This call for “unity” now transcends geographical politics in this new context.
Otherwise, the current political football in the blame game will inevitably cost lives to play.


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