Northern Ireland clashes reflect loyalists' fear of marginalisation

A Sinn Féin funeral was the spark but loyalists in Northern Ireland have been throwing petrol bombs and burning cars partly because they fear political marginalisation.

The union flag no longer flutters daily over Belfast city hall, a trade border separates the region from the rest of the UK and the police are allegedly beholden to Sinn Féin. Add to this a criminal gang’s resentment at recent arrests and you have the context for three consecutive nights of rioting in several towns that have left dozens of police officers injured, including five on Sunday night.

“Sinister” elements with paramilitary links were directing younger people against police, Mark Lindsay, the chair of the Police Federation, told the BBC on Monday. “Some don’t even know why they are attacking them, they’re simply doing as they’re told or it’s seen by some as a bit of fun or recreational.”

The disturbances dwindled over the three nights but they raised troubling questions about Northern Ireland as it faces post-Brexit flux in its centenary year.

Unionists, nationalists and non-aligned parties share power in the Stormont executive but toxic relations between the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, locked in a loveless marriage, make the political climate radioactive.

The Northern Ireland protocol – the part of the Brexit deal that requires checks on goods entering the region from Great Britain – dismays unionists and loyalists who worry it could become an ante-chamber to Irish unity.

Many view it as the latest in a litany of perceived or real concessions to nationalists and the Irish government since the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

Officials in Brussels, Dublin and London may have viewed the protocol in technical terms but for loyalists it was an erosion of sovereignty and a betrayal by the British government, said Peter Shirlow, a director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies and an authority on unionism. “There is an anger in loyalism, a real strong sense of frustration.”

He said a generation born after the Good Friday agreement viewed political compromises inherent in the agreement as defeats. “In the world in which a lot of these young lads live, it’s concession, concession, concession. They see the wind of change moving in one direction. They’re constantly told the other side is winning.”

Sinn Féin’s decision to hold a large funeral in Belfast last June for Bobby Storey, a former leading IRA figure, infuriated people across the political spectrum. Under rules laid down by the executive, no more than 30 people were allowed to attend funerals, but an estimated 2,000 people – including the deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, and other Sinn Féin figures – joined the throng.

The row blazed anew last week after the Public Prosecution Service decided not to act against any Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral.

The DUP first minister, Arlene Foster, led unionist calls for Simon Byrne, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), to resign, alleging that his officers facilitated Sinn Féin in flouting the rules to bury one of its own.

Byrne has refused to quit and a Stormont assembly censure of Sinn Féin ministers was largely symbolic.

Trouble flared on Friday night when youths in loyalist areas of Belfast and Derry hurled bottles, bricks and fireworks. On Saturday night three cars were set on fire and about 30 petrol bombs were thrown in Newtownabbey, outside Belfast. On Sunday night about 20 to 30 people in Newtownabbey and up to 50 people in Carrickfergus clashed with police.

Security analysts said that in Carrickfergus a criminal gang – the South East Antrim UDA, a breakaway segment from the Ulster Defence Association paramilitary group – was hitting back after recent arrests of some members.

Despite ominous statements there is little sign of paramilitary groups rekindling the Troubles, and the disturbances are tiny compared with the huge protests against the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement.

Even so, there is expectation of trouble during this summer’s loyalist marching season. Police representatives say officers are paying the price for political failures. “Stop this now before lives are lost,” tweeted Naomi Long, the Alliance party’s justice minister.

Sinn Féin and the DUP are in no mood for detente. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the violence was the “outworking” of DUP rhetoric, prompting the DUP’s Derry MP Gregory Campbell to accuse Kelly of arrogance.

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