Riots: Northern Ireland burns again | International

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Riot police deploy in front of a fire during protests in Belfast on Thursday.JASON CAIRNDUFF / Reuters

It took 18 months for the Wilkinson Eyre studio architects to build the Bridge of Peace, which spans the River Foyle and joins the two banks of the city of Derry, in the far north-west of Northern Ireland. An end to terrorist and sectarian violence proved more achievable than an end to resentment. There is still 235 endless meters of dark water and accumulated resentment between the Catholic or Republican side (Cityside) and the Protestant or Unionist (Waterside). Any excuse is good – and Brexit has been a tremendous excuse – to rekindle the embers.

MP Gary Middleton (Newbuildings, Northern Ireland, 30 years old) is one of those on the nice side of the maze. Get in and out with ease, because you know the shortcuts. On Wednesday morning, well dressed and tied, he walked door-to-door through the houses on Nelson Drive, a Protestant area, and handed out informational pamphlets with a smile. A few yards away, the remains of a burned phone booth still gave off a pungent, sour smell. The promising politician of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, in its acronym in English) explained to the neighbors the process to recover the 40 euros it costs for each rubbish bin melted by the flames in the previous nights of riots and street violence. “If you are going to take pictures of me, let it be before they open the door. There is too much anger contained in the neighborhood, ”he warned.

Middleton perfectly controls the plot of his party and knows how to swim and put away clothes. He openly condemns violence. You think it's counterproductive. Call for calm. But it justifies in the "frustration" of the unionist community the nights of vandalism and fear that the Protestant neighborhoods have suffered this week. “There is no specific reason, but the sum of several. The long months of confinement, or the feeling that the police are applying a double standard with each other when it comes to imposing the rules of social distancing ”, he extends. And definitely the Northern Ireland Protocol that came with Brexit. We have to find a solution to put an end to that border created in the Irish Sea, which has distanced us even further from Great Britain ”.

This Unionist MP is one of the few people who will give his first and last name and allow himself to be photographed. The rest refuse. In part, because they are fed up with being an exotic zoo of sectarianism. In part, because they prefer not to get into trouble. And partly, also, because they are convinced that violence continues to be the sporadic mechanism that politicians activate or agitate from time to time for their own interest. "But do you think any of these kids understand, or is able to explain, the details and implications of the Protocol (signed between London and Brussels)?" A Waterside neighbor asks sarcastically. She and her husband chat in the middle of the street with another couple. They have taken the dogs out for a walk. “One night of riots, of Molotov cocktails and burning cars, and now you see: absolute tranquility and normality in the neighborhood, ”the husband defends. "It is a mixture of the rebellious spirit of the young people, the fact that they are now on vacation and that some are using them from the shadows for their particular purposes."

"But beyond all that, is there a sense of neglect from London in the community?"

-"Increasingly. We are moving away from them, with the feeling that they do not take us into account ”, intervenes the wife of the second couple.

There are many houses, shoe boxes with gray stucco walls, where the Union jack —The UK flag— but also other insignia proclaiming "No to the Irish Sea Border." The same slogan that is read in the graffiti on the walls. Along with other more disturbing. "PSNI out" or "PSNI pigs" (PSNI pigs). The PSNI is the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It replaced the stigmatized Royal Ulster Gendarmerie, when the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement attempted to begin to close the scars of 30 years of bloody conflict that the world knew as The Troubles (The Problems, or rather The Disturbances).

Fireworks explode in clashes between Nationalists and Unionists in Belfast last Wednesday.
Fireworks explode in clashes between Nationalists and Unionists in Belfast last Wednesday.Peter Morrison / AP

Derry, Carrickfergus, Newtonabbey and especially West Belfast have suffered for more than a week from street violence unprecedented in many years. Almost 80 police officers have suffered injuries of varying degrees. Dublin, London and the Home Rule Government of Belfast (in which the Unionist and Republican parties share power) have faced the worst possibility: that someone, at some point, ends up dying. As it could have happened to the driver of the city bus that caught fire in Belfast on Thursday. And as those same authorities are reluctant to believe that vandalism is the spontaneous product of a rebellious youth, they have claimed the unionist paramilitary factions that are still alive, most of them grouped under the umbrella of the so-called Unionist Communities Council (LCC, in its acronym in English), that they put order in the street. On Friday, the organization finally spoke out. It was their star moment, after months of protesting Brexit and announcements of a possible boycott of the Peace Agreement that nobody bothered to attend to, considering them a marginal and irrelevant organization.

The LCC denounced everything that happened as a "spectacular failure" of all governments, unable to perceive the feeling of betrayal apparently suffered by the Protestant community. “We have constantly urged the British Executive, political leaders and institutions to take seriously our warnings of the dangerous consequences of the imposition of this hard border (in the Irish Sea), and the need to establish a sincere dialogue to solve the problem ”, proclaimed the members of the association.

Advantages and disadvantages

Bill McCamm is 59 years old and has been supervisor of the Foyle Port in Derry for almost two decades. As he walks around the facility and watches as longshoremen begin unloading a shipment of lumber, he shrugs at the question: Has Brexit brought many complications? “There are more cumbersome customs procedures, yes, but there are also people who have seen the opportunity to do business. There are British manufacturers that have moved their base of operations to Northern Ireland (which is still in the EU Internal Market) to export from here to the rest of the world, because it is cheaper for them ”, he explains. He doubts a lot, like most of those consulted for this report, that the practical consequences of the Irish Protocol are the reason for latent street violence, which in recent years appeared and submerged again.

There are more prosaic reasons to explain the awakening of resentment. Some immediate, others necrotic. When two dozen leaders of Sinn Féinn, the Republican party that for years was the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), joined thousands at the funeral of historic terrorist Bobby Storey at the end of June, police watched to the other side. The rules of social distancing had been clearly broken, but the Prosecutor's Office, after a certain theater with voluntary interrogations of those involved, chose not to formally accuse anyone. Soon after, the riots began, under the slogan that the Irish police applied double standards and no longer had the confidence of the Protestant community. A year of pandemic, with bars, shops or youth centers closed, and two weeks of school holidays, did the rest. Adults who washed their hands cheered from the sidewalk at the kids – some as young as 13 – who, hooded to the eyebrows, were the protagonists of the riots. "Stupid, a bunch of stupid who no longer remember what all this was like a little over 20 years ago," says Liam, a 74-year-old retiree who was born in the Republic but traveled, married and made his living on British soil. “See that new, remodeled building? That was a pile of ruins, this city looked like Baghdad ”, he laments.

Derry is no longer Baghdad, but the memory goes through neighborhoods. The Catholic area, with its murals in memory of the massacre of the Bloody sunday or the republican struggle, it has already become a museum of bright colors and taxis that exploit political tourism, and take visitors to all the symbolic points of a conflict that for decades captured the collective imagination. They even allow themselves to start using humor. In the arrivals hall of the airport there is a huge reproduction of the mural that appeared one day in the old part of the city: the famous Derry Girls, the teenagers in the television series who have managed to soften and bring some irony to the terrible years of terrorism. In the shop windows there are posters, t-shirts and all kinds of souvenirs with their faces. The young man who smokes at the doors of the premises where the Republican Prisoners Support Association (the terrorists who are still serving time) is, looks with resentment when he hears the question: “Riots? Violence? It will not be on the Republican side. We do not have any responsibility for everything that is happening ”, he defends himself.

The most radical remnants of unionism, too prey to their ghosts and linked in some case to drugs and criminality, do not yet feel like having their Derry girls. The past, in his case, is still very present. And it is the political parties at the head of the Northern Irish institutions, all the local media have pointed out, which should begin to cut ties and be more intolerant with some small groups that have clung to Brexit to keep the conflict alive.

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