The worst wave of sectarian violence in Belfast in years has been sparked by criminal gangs and anonymous voices on social media, making it harder to control than Northern Ireland’s past paramilitary-led clashes, local leaders and security analysts told the The Washington City Times.
The region’s capital has endured eight nights of consecutive riots from April 2 after peaceful loyalist protests against Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade settlements descended on groups of youths from loyalist and republican communities who exchanged threats and gasoline bombs and with the police. collided.
The protagonists were mostly teenagers and young adults. Their age – coupled with police claims that the activities had a ‘degree of organization’ fuels the widespread belief that there are greater forces behind clashes that have caught the attention of world powers, including the US, some 23 years after the event. Good Friday Agreement had led to peace. the region.
David Campbell, head of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents the largest loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, said his group had actually tried to quell the first loyalist outbreaks of trouble by 40 members of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) to Sandy Row. in south Belfast when problems flared up on April 2.
“The abuse they got,” he said, describing how the youth on the street “had no respect” for the UDA figures, “and these are tough guys.” “One of them (the UDA members) told me the only way we can stop this is if we all had baseball bats and confiscated them,” Campbell added.
His description of the status of the loyalist paramilitaries is at odds with the general perception of their enduring influence, as demonstrated again last week by the Ulster Volunteer Force order to remove Catholic families from their Carrickfergus homes.
“I would be surprised if they couldn’t prevent it (the riots) for the most part,” said Peter Sheridan, a former assistant police chief in the Northern Ireland Police (PSNI) who now heads peace in all islands. -Building organization Co-Operation Ireland. However, he warns that a dangerous precedent would be set if loyalists used force to impose order.
The Independent Reporting Commission, a body jointly established by the British and Irish governments to monitor progress in tackling paramilitary activities, claimed in November that “paramilitarism (republican and loyalist) remains a reality in life in Northern Ireland by 2020 “with” thousands of registered members “exercising control over communities.
Paramilitaries on both sides of the rift have long themselves been accused of being involved in criminal activities to help fund terrorist activities, but security analysts and community activists say the gangs involved in the recent violence were beyond the reach of traditional paramilitary structures.
It is an opinion shared by the PSNI, which said last week that it did not believe the problems were “sanctioned and organized” by banned organizations. Several others also share Campbell’s views on the behind-the-scenes role of social media and criminal elements.
Gerry Kelly, Sinn Féin’s police spokesman in Northern Ireland, who was once in prison for membership in the IRA, said 40 to 50 young people from his community took to the streets one night after false social media reports claimed that loyalists were preparing for nationalist areas in west Belfast.
Social media reports from groups of residents have also spread rumors of possible sectarian raids. An example seen by the The Washington City Times claimed the ‘right of residents to defend their homes from attack’ and said it ‘fully supports this defensive action’.
“You can’t put it on the nationalist side to a shadowy figure or a shadowy group,” Kelly said of the general dynamics that drove young people into the streets, adding that the responsibility lay with “those who have agendas more to make. with criminal elements in the area ”.
Stephen Andrews, a community worker with decades of experience who was hit with rocks and bottles last week while attempting to defuse skirmishes on Belfast’s mixed Springfield Road, described how prominent former IRA inmate Sean ‘Spike’ Murray yelled at him for lock the area’s peace gate so that nationalist rioters could not break through a neighboring loyalist area.
A hangover from the trouble, peace gates can be found in the railing separating the republican and loyalist areas in central Belfast and closed even at normal times from early evening to early morning, forcing pedestrians and vehicles to enter cumbersome routes to take to hospitals. workplaces and wherever they go in the dark.
“I could hear the panic in his voice,” Andrews said of Murray’s attitude that night, describing how senior figures from the republican community were “ignored” as they attempted to disband a crowd that amounted to several hundred and eventually led to him and her. community volunteers. locked up for hours in a hotel that had become homeless because it was attacked by rioters.
The ad hoc and decentralized nature of the protests makes it “incredibly difficult” to monitor, said James, who retired as a PSNI inspector last summer after 30 years and does not want his full name published because of his current work.
He described the PSNI’s efforts to separate rumors from the facts in online chatter and discern the broader story in an environment of such fractured control, particularly on the loyalist side, where some groups such as the South East Antrim UDA have found themselves detached from the LCC.
A recent crackdown by the PSNI against the South East Antrim UDA is another dynamic at play, and it is “no surprise” that their core Newtownabbey area has been the scene of recent riots, he said.
Tom Clonan, a former Irish army officer and security analyst, said the issues raised by Brexit and Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status have given “ legitimacy ” to criminal elements on both sides who use sectarian rhetoric as a cover for everything. , from drug trafficking to prostitution.
“Anything that disrupts normal police work is in their interest,” he said.
Declan Power, a defense analyst who lectures at the NATO school and City Colleges, said the recent fragmentation of loyalist elements was of particular concern. “You could have even more fragmentation and more manifestations of irrational violence that are very difficult to predict and very difficult to understand,” he said.
The Brexit-related protests that sparked the recent unrest were put on hold after Prince Philip’s death last Friday. Since then, the violence has been largely kept under control.
Campbell said he hoped London, Brussels and Dublin will use the “ measure of calm ” to fundamentally overhaul the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the 2019 UK Brexit treaty, which has established a customs border between the UK and Ireland. Northern Ireland and some Loyalists has angered.
“That would defuse things immensely and to a great extent isolate these troublemakers and show them as troublemakers,” he said. “I don’t see any sign of that yet.”