BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Young people set fire to a hijacked bus and threw petrol bombs at the Belfast police on at least the fourth night of serious violence in a week in Northern Ireland, where Britain’s departure from the European Union upset a difficult political balance.
People also threw bricks, fireworks and gas bombs on Wednesday night in both directions over a concrete “peace wall” that separates Protestant, loyal British and Catholic, Irish nationalist neighborhoods.
The assistant chief of the Northern Ireland police service, Jonathan Roberts, said that several hundred people had gathered on either side of a gate in the wall, where “crowds … were committing serious crimes, attacking the police and attacking some to others”.
He said a total of 55 policemen were injured in several nights of disorder.
Recent violence, especially in loyal Protestant areas, has increased amid growing tensions over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and has worsened relations between parties in the Belfast government, which shares Catholic-Protestant power. Britain’s economic separation from the EU last year upset the political balance in Northern Ireland, where some people identify as British and want to stay in the UK, while others consider themselves Irish and seek unity with the neighboring Republic of Ireland , which is a member of the EU.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the unrest, and the Belfast-based Northern Ireland government was holding an emergency meeting on Thursday about the violence.
Johnson called for calm, saying that “the way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality”. Northern Ireland Prime Minister Arlene Foster of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein have condemned the disorder and attacks on the police.
The most recent riots followed the riots over the long Easter weekend in pro-British union areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, which saw cars on fire and projectiles and gas bombs dropped on police officers .
The authorities accused illegal paramilitary groups of inciting young people to cause confusion.
“We saw young people participating in serious disorder and committing serious crimes, and they were supported and encouraged, and the actions were orchestrated by adults at certain times,” said Roberts, the senior police officer.
A new trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU imposed customs and border controls on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The agreement was designed to avoid controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland, because an open Irish border helped to support the peace process built on the Good Friday 1998 agreement.
That deal ended decades of violence involving Irish Republicans, British loyalists and the United Kingdom’s armed forces, in which more than 3,000 people died. But union leaders say the new checks amount to a new border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. They fear that this will undermine the region’s position in the United Kingdom and could strengthen ties with the Republic of Ireland by strengthening calls for a united Ireland.
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Both Britain and the EU have expressed concerns about how the deal is working, and the Democratic Unionist Party, which heads the government of Northern Ireland, has called for it to be canceled.
Katy Hayward, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and a senior UK researcher at a Changing Europe think tank, said union members felt that “the union is very threatened, that Northern Ireland’s place is under threat in the union and they are feel betrayed by London. “
Union members are also angry at the police’s decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander in June. Bobby Storey’s funeral attracted a large crowd, despite coronavirus rules that prohibit mass meetings.
Major union parties demanded the resignation of the Northern Ireland police chief because of the controversy, claiming that he lost the trust of his community.
“You have a very effervescent political atmosphere, in which those who are trying to call for calm and moderation are kind of undermined,” said Hayward.