The Biden administration has called for calm in Northern Ireland following another night of violence, which saw protesters attacking police officers in the capital Belfast. "We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland, and we join the British, Irish, and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press conference.
On Thursday British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a telephone conversation with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin on the ongoing violence, which police say was on a scale not seen in Northern Ireland for years. Vehicles were burned and 55 police officers were injured following more than 10 days of unrest in the country. Police say children as young as 12 were attacking law enforcement.
Who is Behind the Riots?
Local officials still cannot say for certain who is behind the violent protests in Northern Ireland. Reports indicate that the unrest is not being orchestrated by an organised group. Riots have occurred in areas where criminal gangs linked to loyalist paramilitaries have influence. As for the reasons behind the unrest, it seems they were fuelled by tensions over the Irish border, which in turn were sparked by Brexit deal.
Another issue, which authorities assume may have triggered violence is the news that deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill would not be punished for attending the funeral Bobby Storey, a senior member of Irish Republican Army. The funeral was held in June, but O'Neill and other members of Sinn Féin party attended it despite coronavirus restrictions.
Between late 1960s and 1998 Northern Ireland was the scene of a violent sectarian conflict dubbed the Troubles, which left more than 3,600 killed and 30,000 injured. One of the sides (Republicans) opposed Northern Ireland’s alliance with the United Kingdom and wanted it to join the Republic of Ireland.
The other part (Unionists) wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of UK. The conflict ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which among other things, stipulated that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should be almost non-existent – no border posts, no cameras. US Senator George J. Mitchell and then-US president Bill Clinton chaired the peace talks and the latter is said to have a played a key role in the peace process.
The Devil is in the Details (Brexit)
In 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, in a move, which caused concern in Northern Ireland as it threatened to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement by creating a border post between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (EU member).
Following lengthy talks, Britain and the European Union finally managed to find a compromise on the issue, dubbed the Northern Ireland Protocol. Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and the bloc conducts checks on goods on the border between the UK (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland.
However, it seems what worked perfectly on paper is working with difficulties in reality. Since the end of the transition period there have been major disruptions of food supplies and other deliveries due to checks at the ports.
Tensions started escalating after the European Union threatened to terminate the Northern Ireland Protocol due to delays of shipments of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca to the bloc. Unionists are unhappy with the Brexit deal. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster said the Northern Ireland Protocol threatens Belfast’s membership in the United Kingdom. In February together with other MPs she launched a legal challenge against this provision of the Brexit deal.