Since the beginning of April, Northern Ireland has become the site of fervent protests. Violence exploded on the Friday before Easter in a number of areas, including Belfast, Derry (or Londonderry) and parts of County Antrim, peaking on the night of Wednesday 7, during the worst of the unrest so far, in Belfast.
The territory in the north of the island is not new to this kind of tension: the first clashes date back as far as the 1920s, when factions of Unionists and Republicans opposed each other because of their different positions on Irish independence from the United Kingdom. From the 1960s onwards, the conflict turned violent, crowning a period of history that is still remembered today as 'The Troubles'. This period only came to an end in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which defined the relationship between the government of Northern Ireland and the government of the United Kingdom, and between the government of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Clashes between the Protestant population, who wanted the northern territory to remain in the UK, and the Catholic population, who wanted it to be annexed to the Republic of Ireland, subsided momentarily.
However, the Unionist faction's tensions were finally rekindled in January 2021, when Brexit went from being a hypothesis to a reality and, with it, the application of new criteria for the control of goods entering and leaving the United Kingdom. Under the new trade arrangements with Europe, controls apply to goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland, as set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol, a protocol within the wider EU exit agreement, which requires certain goods to be inspected as they enter the single market. The inspection of predominantly foodstuffs takes place in Northern Ireland ports, thus implying the opening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the presence of a new border in the Irish Sea dividing the Northern State from the rest of the United Kingdom. This decision also led to problems with the supply of supermarkets, and provoked an adverse reaction from the Unionist faction, which was concerned about the increasing marginalisation of the Irish area in relation to the rest of the UK.
Although dissent had been in the air since the beginning of the year, the violence only erupted in April after the Police Service of Northen Ireland decided not to prosecute members of the republican Sinn Féin party for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey, former IRA intelligence chief, in June 2020, in clear contravention of anti-Covid regulations.
This is how, on the night of Friday 2 April, fifteen police officers were injured during riots in the Sandy Row area of Belfast, when protesters brandished metal rods and manhole covers and used fireworks, causing officers to suffer burn injuries and broken bones. Seven people were arrested that night, including several minors aged between 12 and 14. However, the peak of the violence did not occur until later on Wednesday, 7 April, when about six hundred people gathered in front of the gates linking Unionist and Nationalist communities in the Shankill and Springfield areas. Some cars were set on fire and petrol bombs were thrown at the police. A total of forty-eight officers were injured during that night, while a bus was hijacked by rioters and set on fire. In total, about ninety policemen were injured during the clashes and fifteen people, including minors, were arrested.
Following the events, all major political authorities in Ireland strongly condemned the violence, but there was much criticism of the lack of concrete involvement of the Westminster government. Moreover, intergovernmental meetings were called between the main Irish political forces with the aim of reaching a resolution with the Democratic Unionist Party, which is pressing for the definitive scrapping of the new Protocol, as well as to put a definitive stop to the disorder.
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