Belfast riots: From Brexit to sectarian anger - the reasons behind the violence in Northern Ireland

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Geraint Vincent

Recreational rioting is a term often used in Northern Ireland. Scenes of youths pelting police lines is an all too familiar and depressing phenomenon. But it is important to say that the violence witnessed over recent days, while destructive and mindless, has not appeared out of nowhere. The reasons for this eruption of violence are as complicated as they are numerous. Unionist anger over the impact of Brexit has been simmering for some time. The Northern Ireland specific plan which was meant to deal with the particular issues caused by its land border with the Republic has essentially created an economic border in the Irish Sea. Known as the NI Protocol, it has become the target of unionist ire.

  • UTV Political Editor Trace Magee on the violence in Belfast

New trading arrangements imposed with little warning led to empty shelves in supermarkets in early January. For unionism these pictures were the physical manifestation of a deep-seated fear – that Northern Ireland’s ties to the Union were being loosened. The fact that the disruption has been short-lived has not eased the concern. As is so often the case it has become an issue of identity.

Then came the EU’s disastrous decision to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol over vaccine supplies. It was supposed to be used as a mechanism of last resort when negotiations had failed. Instead, the EU deployed it in the face of disruption to vaccine supplies and without warning.

If it had not withdrawn within a matter of hours the move would have resulted in the hard border on the island of Ireland which Brussels said throughout the Brexit negotiations it was crucial to avoid.

Empty food shelves in Sainsbury's store in Bangor, Co Down, back in January. Credit: PA

Added to the heady mix is a growing disillusionment within working class loyalist areas with mainstream Unionist parties. The DUP’s initial support for Brexit and its inability to avoid the imposition of the NI Protocol has damaged its credibility.

  • ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo on the scenes in Belfast

The party has united with the other unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and TUV, to oppose the hated plan, but it has so far been unable to shake off the accusation that it helped to create the situation NI now finds itself in.

The spark which lit the tinder was a decision last week by the Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute members of Sinn Fein who attended the funeral of senior IRA man Bobby Storey in June last year.

Two thousand people lined the streets of west Belfast. Members of the Sinn Fein leadership, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, President Mary Lou McDonald and former leader Gerry Adams, walked behind the coffin along with members of Mr Storey’s family. This at a time when the Covid-19 restrictions called for people to stay home and limited the number of people permitted to attend funerals.

Crowds gather at the funeral of former leading IRA figure Bobby Storey in July 2020. Credit: PA

The PSNI recommended that 24 elected representatives from Sinn Fein should be prosecuted. The PPS disagreed citing two reasons - a lack of clarity in the Covid-19 regulations and engagement between the police and the organisers prior to the funeral. The decision led to unionist outrage and a public call from the DUP leader Arlene Foster for the Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign. He’s refused and now there is a stand-off between him and the First Minister. It is obvious there is some degree of orchestration in the violence. Children as young as 12 years old do not normally have petrol bombs conveniently ready to throw at police. Neither do they understand the intricacies of the political situation now facing Northern Ireland.

There have been calls for the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

The Loyalist Communities Council – an umbrella group for loyalist paramilitaries including the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando insist they are not involved. In fact one source claims they have actively been trying to stop it. Some of the violence is being interpreted as revenge by some individual loyalist paramilitaries who have been targeted by police over their criminal activities. What is clear is sinister elements are encouraging bored and disaffected youths to riot. Brexit, complex socio-economic factors, political disaffection and the ever present sectarian anger have combined to disturb Northern Ireland’s delicate ecosystem – restoring balance is now the challenge.