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Northern Ireland: why the outbreak of violence that revives ghosts of the past

Northern Ireland is experiencing one of the worst waves of violence in the region in years.

More of 50 police officers have been injured and at least 10 people have been arrested for the protests of the last ten days in various cities and towns in Northern Ireland.

The prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Ireland condemned the violence and the government of Northern Ireland held a meeting on Thursday to demand “the total and immediate end” of the riots, according to the BBC journalist Michael Hirst.

The White House joined the British and Irish governments in urging calm.

The US State Department has warned that the Good Friday Agreement, the pact that brought peace to the region in 1998, must not become “a victim” of Brexit.

Despite these calls, the clashes continued this Thursday night, with the autonomous police (PSNI) responding with water cannons to attacks by the rioters – some 12 years old – with gasoline bombs, stones and bricks.

All the major political parties of both sides in Northern Ireland have condemned the riots, although they are divided on the causes.

We present you some keys to understand what is happening.

1. Where is the violence taking place?

The street violence, mainly carried out by groups of unionists loyal to the British crown, began on March 29 in an area of ​​Londonderry.

Since then, there have been protests and riots practically every night in a number of cities, including Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Newtownabbey.

Wednesday night the confrontation escalated to sectarian clashes in the so-called “peace lines” that separate predominantly Protestant Loyalist communities, who advocate for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, from predominantly Catholic Unionist communities, who want it to be an independent territory or join neighboring Ireland.

That night the climax of the clashes was reached with the kidnapping and Belfast city bus fire and the assault on a press photographer, Hirst says.

Parts of Northern Ireland remain divided along sectarian lines, 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement largely ended the Troubles, a conflict that lasted at least 30 years and claimed the lives of more than 3,500. people.

The peace agreement ended the armed confrontation and led to the formation of a shared government between loyalists and unionists.

Despite the relative peace and prosperity Northern Irishmen have enjoyed in recent years, sectarianism and divisions have not disappeared.

2. Who is behind the protests?

While there is no clear indication that the protests are being orchestrated by an organized group, the violence has been concentrated in areas where criminal gangs linked to loyalist paramilitaries have significant influence.

There is mounting evidence that high-ranking figures in organizations like the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force are allowing the unrest to continue.

3. What does it have to do with Brexit?

Unionist leaders have linked the violence to accumulated tensions over the Irish Sea border imposed as a result of the Brexit deal between the UK and the European Union.

The new trade border is the result of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was introduced to avoid the need for a physical border on the island of Ireland.

It avoids the need to establish controls at the Irish border, as EU customs rules apply in the ports of Northern Ireland.

The unionists say the protocol harms trade and threatens Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

In March, the Council of Loyalist Communities, which represents the three main Protestant paramilitary groups in the region, announced that it was temporarily withdrawing its support for the Good Friday Agreement over concerns regarding the Brexit protocol.

The Council asked the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, to do the same, although it specified that it continues to respect the truce.

4. Are there other factors at play?

Some unionist leaders attribute the violence to the decision not to sanction leaders of the Republican Sinn Féin party – which is committed to a reunified Ireland – for breaking pandemic restrictions to attend the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) intelligence chief in June of last year.

Bobby Storey’s funeral drew 2,000 people, including Senior Deputy Minister Michelle O’Neill, at a time when strict Covid-19 restrictions were in place limiting the number of people who could congregate in public.

Some voices have accused the police of having double standards after the Prosecutor’s Office said that there would be no charges.

The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Chief Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, said she does not share that vision, but called for the resignation of the head of the PSNI, Simon Byrne.

Byrne acknowledges the anger of the population, but has refused to resign.

Calling for an end to the street riots, Byrne said he is “open to dialogue” with anyone who is willing to work with him “to resolve the issues facing the community.”

Addressing the protesters, he tweeted: “Go home before someone gets seriously hurt. Violence is not the answer. “

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