Young people set a hijacked bus on fire and hurled gasoline bombs at police in Belfast in at least the fourth night of serious violence in a week in Northern Ireland, where Britain’s exit from the European Union has unsettled an uneasy political balance.
People also lobbed bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs Wednesday night in both directions over a concrete “peace wall” that separates Protestant, British loyalist, and Catholic, Irish nationalist neighbourhoods.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said several hundred people gathered on both sides of a gate in the wall, where “crowds … were committing serious criminal offences, both attacking police and attacking each other.”
He said a total of 55 police officers have been injured over several nights of disorder.
The recent violence, largely in loyalist, Protestant areas, has flared amid rising tensions over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and worsening relations between the parties in the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing Belfast government. Britain’s economic split from the EU last year has disturbed the political balance in Northern Ireland, where some people identify as British and want to stay part of the U.K., while others see themselves as Irish and seek unity with the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the unrest, and Northern Ireland’s Belfast-based government was holding an emergency meeting Thursday on the violence.
Johnson appealed for calm, saying: “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, both condemned the disorder and the attacks on police.
The latest disturbances followed unrest over the Easter long weekend in pro-British unionist areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, that saw cars set on fire and projectiles and gasoline bombs hurled at police officers.
Authorities have accused outlawed paramilitary groups of inciting young people to cause mayhem.
“We saw young people participating in serious disorder and committing serious criminal offences, and they were supported and encouraged, and the actions were orchestrated by adults at certain times,” said Roberts, the senior police officer.
Border implications of trade deal
A new U.K.-EU trade deal has imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process built on the 1998 Good Friday accord.
That accord ended decades of violence involving Irish republicans, British loyalists and U.K. armed forces in which more than 3,000 people died. But unionists say the new checks amount to a new border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. They fear that undermines the region’s place in the United Kingdom and could bolster ties with the Irish Republic, strengthening calls for a united Ireland.
Both Britain and the EU have expressed concerns about how the agreement is working, and the Democratic Unionist Party, which heads the Northern Ireland government, has called for it to be scrapped.