IIt’s not hard to find the next riot spot in Northern Ireland. You can check Facebook or other social media platforms for locations and hours. You can follow young people who visit gas stations to fill cans. Or you can accompany older people who gather, phones in hand, to watch and record the show.
An older woman arrived at Lanark Way on Shankill Road on Wednesday in a coat and bathrobe for what promised to be a long, cold and eventful evening. “Not long ago,” one man said to no one in particular.
The troublemakers who would soon be young men, many teenagers, dressed almost identically in dark fleeces and tracksuits. They made their preparations openly and methodically, even boastfully, knowing that they had an audience of several hundred people.
Some scooped up rocks from an adjacent vacant lot, making small piles in the pavement and bagging the smaller rocks. Others took pallets from a wooden pyramid, a bonfire for the summer marching season, and built a fire in the middle of the road. Tires were added, sending a black feather into a darkening sky.
The atmosphere was dizzying. Boys around 17 years old appeared, accompanied by younger apprentices, with brown bottles, some filled with liquid. They all looked at the bottles.
Kevin Scott, a photographer for the Belfast Telegraph, was assaulted and his camera was smashed.
With the street blocked and a fire burning, the white police Land Rovers arrived, the lights flashed but the sirens did not sound, and the discharge began.
Stones, bottles and gasoline pumps crashed into the vehicles. Spectators followed the track to disperse, or return home, and leave the stage to the lead performers.
Two young men boarded a Translink double-decker bus without a driver and passengers. An older man appeared to guard the entrance, like a butler, as they fiddled with the controls. They got out, the bus rolled and a gasoline bomb exploded inside, creating a fireball on wheels.
A vehicle connecting the city, connecting the people, destroyed by the children of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that drew a line under the riots – it was a daunting sight.
Six nights of unrest in Northern Ireland left 55 police officers injured and exacerbated a political crisis spanning policing, Brexit and the endless tug of war between nationalists and trade unionists.
“Last night was on a scale that we have not seen in Belfast or further afield in Northern Ireland for several years,” said Deputy Chief of Police Jonathan Roberts. “We are very, very lucky that no one was seriously injured or killed last night given the large number of gasoline bombs dropped.”
Translink said the bus driver was very shocked but physically unharmed. Ten people have been arrested in the last week, one of them a 13-year-old boy.
The British and Irish governments expressed their great concern about the return of scenes supposedly consigned to history. The region’s power distribution executive in Stormont held an emergency meeting with Simon Byrne, the chief of police. In the assembly hall, politicians from all parties condemned the violence. Brandon Lewis, the secretary of Northern Ireland, planned to meet with religious, community and political leaders.
But there were reports that loyalists are planning further protests this weekend. And there were no signs of a détente between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to chart a way out of the crisis.
In a way, things are not as bad as they seem. The protests have been small, generally involving a few dozen people. The main loyalist paramilitary groups have not supported the protests. Stormont’s assembly and executive continue to function and give primacy to peaceful constitutional politics. No one has died.
But the undercurrents driving the unrest are deep and turbulent.
“We are second-class citizens. Protestants are second-class citizens, it’s not okay, ”said Jay, a 16-year-old, as his friends prepared for a skirmish with the police.
They repeated complaints like a mantra: second-class citizens, harassed by the police, abandoned by the union parties, betrayed by the government and, worst of all, outmatched by the nationalists.
According to this perspective, the nationalists were able to circumvent the rules of the pandemic at a large funeral for Bobby Storey, an IRA commander, last summer because the police are now biased towards Sinn Féin; the DUP turned around and let Boris Johnson weaken Northern Ireland’s bond with the UK to close a Brexit deal; loyalty has been ignored and trampled on and the only way to get attention, to strike back, is to cause some chaos.
“You weren’t here until we started lighting a fire,” said a young man, seeing a journalist’s notebook.
Some analysts believe the DUP has demanded the resignation of the chief of police over the surveillance of Storey’s funeral in order to stoke controversy and deflect the ire of loyalists over the party’s role in creating the Irish Sea border.
“If they’re in a tight corner, they fuel union insecurities, give loyal paramilitaries a longer leash and sit back and watch as the country burns down,” Tom Collins. wrote in the Irish News, a Belfast newspaper that he used to edit.
Middle-aged men have remained amid some riots, raising suspicions that elements of loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Defense Association, are orchestrating events. This could be to let the kids vent, to toughen the resolve of union leaders, to punish the police for a recent string of arrests and drug raids, or all of the above.
The irony is that in the year of the centenary of Northern Ireland it is trade unionists and loyalists, not nationalists or republicans, who seek to highlight the shortcomings of the region and show that this part of the UK, post-Brexit, does not work.
In Belfast on Wednesday night, however, some nationalists were happy to help them defend the case. During the day, they had monitored postings by loyalists on social media about the Lanark Way protest, which would begin at 5 p.m. They met on Springfield Road on the other side of the so-called wall of peace and threw rocks and bottles at the loyal side.
A barrage of burning stone, glass, and gasoline came in response, a sectarian air battle peppered with sectarian insults. One of the gates caught fire and was breached, and intruders briefly swarmed into enemy territory. For a fleeting moment it resembled 1969, the dawn of the riots, when mobs burned houses, but the skirmish ended without serious injury.
“It’s very daunting,” said Cailin McCaffery, 25, a graduate researcher on the Springhill Road side, as smoke curled over the Shankill. “The PUL [Protestant Unionist Loyalist] community is destroying its own community. “
Northern Ireland had made tremendous progress since the Good Friday deal, for example growing community support for LGBT rights, but here were Catholic teenagers caught in a tribal battle with Protestant teenagers living on the other side of the wall, McCaffery said. . “The fear is that the riots will worsen. We don’t want to relive what our parents went through ”.
On Thursday morning, calm and a sense of normalcy returned to Shankill Road, with traffic passing the two-story scorched corpse. The wheels were still smoking.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism