Rioters set fire to a hijacked bus and dropped petrol bombs at Belfast police in at least the fourth night of serious violence in a week in Northern Ireland, where Brexit has disrupted an uncomfortable political balance.
Young people threw projectiles and gasoline bombs at police in the Protestant Shankill Road area on Wednesday evening, while rioters threw bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs in both directions across the concrete ‘wall of peace’ separating Shankill Road from a neighboring Irish nationalist area.
Assistant Chief of Police of Northern Ireland Jonathan Roberts said hundreds of people gathered on either side of a gate in the wall, where “crowds … committed serious crimes, both the police and each other.”
He said a total of 55 police officers were injured during several nights of disorder.
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the unrest and the Northern Ireland government in Belfast held an emergency meeting on the riots on Thursday.
Johnson called for calm, saying, “The way to resolve disputes is through dialogue, not violence or crime.” Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Arlene Foster of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill of Irish nationalists Sinn Fein both condemned the disorder and the attacks on the police.
The recent violence, largely in pro-British loyalist areas, has flared amid mounting tensions over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and deteriorating relations between the parties in Belfast’s Protestant Catholic government.
The latest disturbances followed unrest over the long Easter weekend in union areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, where cars were set on fire and projectiles and petrol bombs were hurled at police officers.
Authorities have accused banned paramilitary groups of inciting youth to chaos.
“We saw young people participate in serious disorder and commit serious crimes, and they were supported and encouraged, and the actions were orchestrated by adults at times,” said Roberts, the senior police officer.
The economic split of Britain and the European Union in late 2020 has upset the political balance in Northern Ireland, a part of the UK where some people identify as British and others as Irish.
A new trade agreement between the UK and the EU has imposed customs and border controls on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.The arrangement was designed to allow controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, as an open Irish border has helped support the peace process based on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The accord ended decades of violence involving Irish Republicans, British Loyalists and British Armed Forces, killing more than 3,000 people. But unionists say the new controls amount to a new border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK
Unionists are also upset over a police decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander in June. Bobby Storey’s funeral drew large crowds, despite coronavirus rules excluding mass gatherings.
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Major unionist parties have demanded the resignation of the Northern Ireland Police Chief over the controversy, claiming that he has lost the trust of their community.