What is Happening in Northern Ireland?

Today the Stormont Assembly met in Northern Ireland as politicians try to get a grip with what has happened in the past week and to call for an end to the violence.

What has been happening?

Beginning initially in unionist communities, some groups have carried out a campaign of escalating violence in the last week. On Wednesday this spilled over with a bus being hijacked and petrol bombed. 

Later on Wednesday night crowds of a few hundred people on each side threw petrol bombs in both directions in the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road area of Belfast. Over the last six nights of violence, at least 55 police officers have been injured in attacks. As some of the footage has shown, some of the people involved in the violence have included children as young as 12. 

Why?

Northern Ireland’s troubled past has been well documented, but the violence of recent days is being blamed by some on the decision not to prosecute people, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who attended the large funeral of Bobby Storey, 64, a senior republican figure who had formerly been the head of intelligence for the IRA in the 1990s.

Brexit is also being blamed for the outbreak of violence as some within the unionist community see the deal done by Boris Johnson as effectively breaking off Northern Ireland from Great Britain with the Northern Irish Protocol being the most controversial part of the deal.

The Protocol

During Brexit negotiations, all sides sought to protect the Northern Ireland peace deal (the Good Friday agreement). This meant keeping the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland open and avoiding introducing new cameras and border posts. In order to do this, the deal created customs checks for goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, with some saying this has created a border down the Irish Sea. Unionists are strongly opposed to the checks because they don’t want Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the UK. One group has even written to the Prime Minister to withdraw support for the Good Friday agreement.

A Mercy No One Has Been Killed

Alliance leader Naomi Long spoke this morning in Stormon to say ‘the scenes we have witnessed of people forced from their cars, bus drivers and passengers ordered off public transport and vehicles set alight are nothing short of disgraceful’. 

Mrs Long added: ‘It is a mercy that no one has lost their life as a result of this appalling violence.’

Response

In a statement, the Northern Irish executive has called for an end to the riots and said: ‘We are gravely concerned by the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets over the last week, including those at the Lanark Way interface last night,” ministers said. Attacks on police officers, public services and communities are deplorable and they must stop. Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities.

‘Those who would seek to use and abuse our children and young people to carry out these attacks have no place in our society. While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and for the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm’s way to protect others. We, and our departments, will continue to work together to maximise the support we can give to communities and the PSNI to prevent further violence and unrest.’

It was Mrs Long’s Alliance party that brought the motion to the recalled assembly:

That this Assembly notes with concern the violence on our streets over recent days and condemns without equivocation those involved; sends best wishes to those police officers attacked or injured whilst protecting the community and extends its sympathy to those members of the public who have suffered distress, loss or damage as a result; reaffirms its full commitment to support for policing and for the rule of law; recognises that leadership comes with responsibility; recommits to upholding a culture of lawfulness in both actions and in words; and calls for an immediate and complete end to this violence.

Each party has supported the motion, though politicians have acknowledged that frustrations have been growing in the country. Even if politicians can work with their communities to bring an end to this round of violence, the long term future of Northern Ireland is looking increasingly volatile and the pressure will mount on London and Brussels to find a way of achieving the something that right now seems almost impossible. 

Meanwhile Northern Ireland Secretary State Brandon MP Lewis has flown to NI this afternoon for urgent talks with the main Stormont parties about the recent violence.

Speaking to the BBC he denied the government had played a part in the unrest. ‘We recognise the issues around identity and are working to make sure UK citizens in Northern Ireland have the same experience as UK citizens living in Great Britain,’ he said.

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