Rioting in Northern Ireland continued on Friday night, with demonstrators using gas bombs against the police and setting a car on fire in the capital of Belfast.
The night of violence marked the eighth straight day of demonstrations and unrest in five towns and cities across Northern Ireland — a trend that has some experts worried about the possibility that the region could be seeing a sustained resurgence of sectarian violence. Saturday, April 10, is the 23rd anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended 30 years of such conflict, known as “the Troubles,” but unrest and violence has flared up from time to time ever since.
Over the past week, a double-decker bus has been hijacked and set on fire; masked youths have hurled homemade gas bombs at police; rival gangs have thrown bricks and fireworks at each other. So far there have been no deaths reported, but at least 74 police officers have been injured, and observers say that the period of turbulence marks the largest clashes Northern Ireland has seen in eight years.
Most of the rioters are young people — some as young as 12, the Police Service of Northern Ireland told CNN. The violence has been concentrated in “unionist” communities, but conflict has also taken place in areas dividing unionist communities from “nationalist” neighborhoods. During the Troubles, unionists were largely Protestant and identified with loyalty to the United Kingdom, and nationalists were mostly Catholics, identified as Irish, and sought a united Ireland.
While conflict between the groups formally ended with the Good Friday Agreement, tensions and violence that hark back to the Troubles still resurface, and are often tied to concerns that one group holds undue influence or power over national affairs. The current set of clashes has become high-profile enough that the Biden administration released a brief statement expressing concern about rising violence.
Experts say there is not one clear explanation for the recent clashes, but that there are a few different factors — which may be feeding off of each other. Brexit and the sense in unionist communities that London is neglecting Northern Ireland by the terms of the agreement are one factor. Another issue is a recent decision by authorities to avoid prosecuting nationalist politicians for flouting Covid-19 protocols.
What is clear is that political observers see violence escalating at a worrying pace. “I think it’s very serious. It’s easy to see how things can escalate and hard to see how things can calm down,” Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, told the New York Times.
There are multiple factors driving the unrest in Northern Ireland
Conflict and violence between unionists and nationalists dates back decades. But the most recent spate of violence seems to be, at least in part, a response to a specific flashpoint in the relationship between the two communities.