Why are there riots in Northern Ireland and how serious are they?
Jim Drury
Europe;United Kingdom
Loyalists demonstrate against the Northern Ireland Protocol in County Antrim, Northern Ireland on Tuesday. /Paul Faith/AFP

Loyalists demonstrate against the Northern Ireland Protocol in County Antrim, Northern Ireland on Tuesday. /Paul Faith/AFP


After days of violence, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been recalled from recess to hold an emergency meeting. Political leaders from across the UK province will convene at Stormont to decide how to defuse the riots as minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney warned a response is needed "before someone gets killed."

A week of rioting in Northern Ireland has thrown the spotlight back onto the increasingly uneasy truce between loyalists and republicans in the UK province after more than two decades of calm.

Disorder involving loyalist – pro-British and mostly Protestant – rioters, some as young as 12, led to 10 arrests and 41 police officers being injured the capital Belfast, nearby Newtownabbey and Derry/Londonderry.

On Wednesday, violence spread to republican, mostly Catholic, areas. Both sides threw rocks, petrol bombs and fireworks at each other while, in Belfast, masked loyalists firebombed a moving bus. The driver escaped unharmed. 



France wants U.S. to return 1904 Olympic medals

Who should be vaccinated first?

Can horses help ease depression?


Following criticism that the situation was being ignored by Westminster, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a statement expressing his concern at "the scenes of violence."

There are various reasons why violence has erupted and why the specter of a return to the 'Troubles' of the period between the late 1960s and late 1990s worries both authorities and residents.


'The Troubles'

The landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) between Northern Ireland's political parties, and a separate international agreement between the UK and Irish governments, ended a conflict that had killed 3,500.

Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when Ireland was partitioned by the Government of Ireland Act. The majority of Northern Ireland's population were unionists (Protestant descendants of UK colonists), wishing to remain within the UK. The majority in Southern Ireland were Catholics who formed the Irish Free State (later Republic of Ireland). A significant minority in the north were Irish nationalists and Catholics, who wanted the territories to unite.

Subsequent institutional bias towards Protestants in the province increased the sense of grievance among the nationalist community. Following the British army's deployment to Northern Ireland in 1969, a number of paramilitary organizations on both sides, including the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), carried out attacks on each other's communities. The IRA also launched offensives on the UK mainland.

The GFA let unionists (also known as loyalists) and nationalists coexist by blurring the region's status, dissolving border checks with fellow European Union member Ireland.



The UK's 2016 decision to leave the EU has reignited tensions which had largely remained dormant. New border checks effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU's customs union and single market, despite promises from Johnson that this would not happen.

A special "protocol" was agreed for Northern Ireland, moving checks away from the land border to Northern Irish ports, on goods arriving from Britain. Unionist parties want its removal, arguing that it imposes an economic border between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland.

First Minister Arlene Foster, who leads the Democratic Unionist Party, plans a legal challenge against the protocol, arguing that it breaches the principle of consent contained in the GFA.

The UK government's decision to extend the grace period before full implementation of checks on goods going into Northern Ireland, which angered the EU, has not quelled unionist discontent.


A police officer walks behind a police vehicle with flames leaping up the rear after violence broke out in Newtownabbey. /Paul Faith/AFP

A police officer walks behind a police vehicle with flames leaping up the rear after violence broke out in Newtownabbey. /Paul Faith/AFP


Funeral controversy

Strict COVID-19 lockdown guidelines forbid the holding of large funerals typical in Ireland. The unionist community were therefore outraged when the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chose recently not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians – including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill – for attending the large-scale funeral of former senior IRA member Bobby Storey.

Prosecutors explained that police engagement with funeral organizers, plus a lack of clarity in the provinces COVID-19 regulations, were behind their decision.


Paramilitary gangs

Police success in cracking down on paramilitary gangs may also be crucial. The south-east Antrim Ulster Defence Association, thought to be heavily involved in crimes such as drug-dealing, are believed by security analysts and police to have orchestrated some of the disturbances in response.

Police Federation chair Mark Lindsay said there was "obviously paramilitary involvement" while PSNI chief Davy Beck said police had been "successful in respect of criminal gangs" and the violence was "perhaps a reaction from those involved in criminality."


What happens now?

The devolved Northern Ireland Assembly is being recalled early from its Easter break to discuss the violence. 

Events in the coming weeks to mark the 100th anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland could be problematic, along with July's annual Orangemen parades. Held by loyalists to celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, the marches have regularly caused clashes, even in the years since the GFA.

Search Trends