A Loyalist protest turns violent at the Belfast peace line (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

April 9, 2021   7 mins

It’s flying through the air again. Masonry, metal rods, petrol bombs, the detritus of rage, the kind that the poet Ciaran Carson once dubbed “Belfast confetti”. The riots in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland started with the Easter Weekend and have carried on ever since, injuring 74 police officers. Scores of young Protestants, some only 13 and masked for all the wrong reasons, have been flinging missiles at police vans, petrol-bombing and hijacking a city bus, and fighting with Catholic youths through a smashed gap in the West Belfast “peace wall”.

What’s it all about? As ever when Northern Ireland catches fire, the match does not fully explain the kindling, although the two are closely related. The match, in this case, was the decision by the Public Prosecution Service not to charge any Sinn FĂ©in politicians with breaking Covid restrictions during the funeral last June of Bobby Storey, a former IRA intelligence director.

Sinn FĂ©in has never been a party to play down a funeral, apart from those the IRA brought about, and Storey’s was a notable event. Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn FĂ©in Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, headed the procession along with Mary Lou McDonald, the party leader, and Gerry Adams, the former party leader. More than 2,000 people lined the route and followed the cortege, and a snap showed O’Neill with a fellow-mourner’s arm around her, displaying a cavalier disregard for social distancing.

After a public and political outcry, an independent investigation by the Cumbria Constabulary drew up a file relating to 24 Sinn Féin representatives. But the public prosecutor recently refused to take it further, on the basis that the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been substantially involved in agreeing the Storey funeral arrangements in the first place. The perception among Unionists, and some Nationalists, was that Sinn Féin politicians were blithely operating outside the rules, and that the PSNI leadership was helping them do it. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and first minister, called for the resignation of Simon Byrne, the PSNI chief constable. So did every other Unionist party. He has thus far refused to resign. Against this extraordinary backdrop of authority in chaos, ordinary police officers are now going up nightly against crowds of youths wielding Molotov cocktails.

The scenes on the streets are depressing ones, reminiscent of the dark days of the Troubles. The young rioters themselves are, of course, directly responsible for their violent actions. But behind them, particularly in South East Antrim, one can sense the steering hand of older loyalist paramilitaries. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the Loyalist Communities Council — an “umbrella group” for the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando — announced its withdrawal of support in early March for the 1998 Good Friday agreement. The reason was its anger at the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, which creates a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom by keeping the former a part of the EU’s single market for goods.

Both loyalists and the wider Unionist population feel strongly that the Protocol fundamentally undermines Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, an analysis which most outside observers would surely find hard to counter. The question now is what anyone is going to do about it. Although the LCC was careful to say that opposition to the Protocol should remain “peaceful and democratic” the declaration sounded — and was fully intended to sound — an ominous note. And this Good Friday, in terms of peace, was a bad one.

I have reported on riots in Northern Ireland, and the unfortunate truth is that for the youths involved they are often wildly exciting occasions. The tacit permission conferred by “political anger” allows young people out on the streets, drinking lager and setting fire to things in a kind of carnival of rage: whoops and laughter are inevitably mixed in with the guttural yells.

There will be serious and sometimes irreparable costs, of course: injury to police officers and rioters themselves, damage to vehicles and property and the possibility of acquiring criminal records. Last week a loyalist rioter set his own clothes on fire. It was at a republican riot in Derry that the young journalist Lyra McKee was shot and killed in 2019. Such considerations might certainly weigh heavily with the more responsible local parents. But they will make little impression on a teenager clutching a petrol bomb, springy with adrenalin and pent-up frustration, particularly after a year in which Covid restrictions have rendered daily life more constricted and colourless than normal.

For most of these rioters, too, violence or the threat of it will be far from abnormal to them, despite the official “peace” in post-1998 Northern Ireland. They have grown up in largely Protestant working-class areas, dominated by the presence of former or current loyalist paramilitaries, many released early from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Some of these ex-prisoners are now salaried “community workers”. Among their ranks, some are no doubt sincere about helping young people avoid the vicious sectarian brutality which warped and defined their own lives. Yet numerous others have energetically exploited the “peace” to celebrate sectarianism and expand criminal empires involving drugs and extortion. They entrench their fiefdoms by dispensing beatings and shootings, sometimes fatally, to any fellow-Protestant who crosses their path.

In the years since 1998, little has been done to restrain them. The unspoken official bargain with both loyalist and republican paramilitaries has been that — so long as such organisations hold off on explicitly sectarian murders — they will be broadly untroubled by the authorities. The efforts of the PSNI to hold such criminality accountable have often been hampered by the lack of a wider political will, and reluctance of witnesses to give evidence. The British government imagined, perhaps, that with time and the steady flow of government grants operating as some kind of opiate, the loyalist paramilitaries would eventually grow tractable. If so, it was a miscalculation.

Since 1998, Sinn FĂ©in — many of whose prominent members were in the IRA — has attained ever more political clout, making striking electoral gains in the north and more recently in the south. But parties representing the loyalist paramilitaries have been hampered in their political ambitions by the fact that the bulk of the Protestant community simply declined to vote for them. This has created a disparity of influence of which the loyalists are both keenly aware and resentful. The paramilitary murals in loyalist areas have become more explicitly menacing, deliberately evoking the murderous height of the Troubles.

One grouping in particular, the South East Antrim brigade of the Ulster Defence Association — thought to be most heavily involved in the drugs trade — has recently upped the ante, making open death threats against journalists and politicians who have exposed or criticised it. It was further enraged by the recent arrest of four of its members by the PSNI on drugs charges. It is perhaps not a surprise that names of areas in which this brigade dominates – including Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballymena — all featured in recent reports of rioting.

The young Protestant rioters we now see on the nightly news are the children of post-ceasefire Northern Ireland. They are in many ways its lost boys. In their streets — unlike more middle-class areas — the paramilitary threat never went away. A couple of years ago, I recall attending a community event for schoolchildren on the Protestant Shankill Road in West Belfast, in which a travelling theatre group put on a lively play meant to illustrate the dangers of getting sucked into the criminal orbit of the paramilitaries. Afterwards, there was a question-and-answer session that included a local policewoman. The teenage boys behind me — quick-witted, both cocky and vulnerable — had watched the play attentively, and later one of them spoke up to ask: “Are the cops scared of the paramilitaries?” The policewoman rather predictably assured him that they weren’t.

Afterwards, I asked him why he had posed the question. It emerged that his father had been shot in the legs by paramilitaries for alleged “anti-social” behaviour years earlier. When he himself had got into an argument with another boy at school, one whose father was “connected,” his family had been warned to leave their house immediately or face the consequences. A local “mediation” service had managed to get the threat lifted, but I imagine its potential return never felt very far away. The entire landscape of his childhood had been laced with menace, in which the rest of society appeared largely uninterested. As such youths grow up, the local hard-men can appear as their tormentors, role models or, paradoxically, both things at once.

Working-class Protestant boys have the lowest educational achievement in Northern Ireland. The shipyards and mills that provided their ancestors with employment have melted away. A wealth of potential talent often lies untapped, as I am reminded every year when I see the annual Twelfth of July bonfires that so many toil long and hard to build, teetering miracles of engineering — bemusing to outsiders — which will do nothing more than blaze fiercely and briefly, emitting clouds of noxious smoke. Politically, there is a sense of embattled defensiveness, of belonging to a community inexorably on the slide away from a UK which is increasingly contemptuous of them, and towards a Republic of Ireland which is even more so.

The majority of Unionists — including many people in working-class communities — will regard the rioting with deep disapproval, and want it stopped. But that will not eradicate their abiding dislike of the Protocol, and the effect it is having on businesses, trade and their sense of Britishness. They have been cut adrift by Boris Johnson’s vision of Brexit, in a way that even those Unionists who backed Brexit did not foresee, and which Johnson himself had explicitly promised would not happen. Perhaps they should have predicted what Johnson would actually do, and not listened to what he said, but then it has been a recurrent tendency of Unionists to place excessive faith in the word of a British prime minister.

In appealing for peace on Northern Ireland’s streets, however, the British Government faces one great obstacle: the widespread perception in Belfast that violence — or the threat of it — works to secure political ends. That perception has flowed in part from the peace process, and not without reason. The SDLP politician Seamus Mallon once recalled asking Tony Blair why he spent so much more time in private talks with Sinn FĂ©in, when the moderate SDLP was at that time the larger party. Blair replied, memorably: “The trouble with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns.”

An oft-repeated phrase in the peace process was “parity of esteem”. As Unionists see it, that is rapidly eroding. What loyalist paramilitaries seem now to be seeking is “parity of menace”. When considering where a customs border might be placed in the event of a hard Brexit, it was repeatedly emphasised — most passionately by the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar — that a land border was unconscionable, lest it run the risk of reigniting republican violence. This argument was taken very seriously by the US and EU, and no land customs border was forthcoming.

The opposite possibility, however — that a sea border might do the same to loyalist violence — scarcely seemed to figure on the international radar. Johnson’s Government showed a blithe disregard for the danger, although Theresa May had previously taken steps to avoid it. But by showing that Unionist concerns will be downgraded rather than run any risk of republican violence, the British Government and the EU have now created an awful incentive for loyalist paramilitaries to demonstrate an equivalent level of threat.

That incentive is not just implied, but actually written into Article 16 of the Protocol itself. There, it states that UK or the EU can unilaterally suspend aspects of the Protocol’s operation if it is causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”. That’s the political equivalent of a teacher telling a delinquent school pupil that they can only get out of a locked classroom by setting it alight. The loyalist paramilitaries — whether by instinct or conscious design — will now make it their business to create “serious societal difficulties” that are “liable to persist”. It’s a terrible script. And unless Britain and the EU can somehow rewrite it, fast, it’s going to make for a very long, hot summer.

Jenny McCartney is a journalist, commentator and author of the novel The Ghost Factory.