Northern Ireland rioters reject calls for peace

Belfast, United Kingdom – Britain issued a fresh call for calm on Friday after police in Northern Ireland faced another barrage of petrol bombs and rocks overnight, escalating a week of unrest.

The worst unrest in recent years in the UK-ruled province has mostly been caused by its unionist minority, which is angry about the perceived economic disruption caused by Brexit, as well as current conflicts with pro-Irish nationalist groups.

Rioters hurled petrol bombs and flares at armored police cars, as well as rocks, bricks, and glass bottles, late Thursday.

An AFP journalist witnessed riot police on the nationalist side of divided Belfast being pelted with projectiles as they attempted to prevent a crowd from heading towards pro-UK unionists.

"There is no role for violence to resolve these issues," Britain's Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the next morning, adding that parties from across Northern Ireland had united to condemn the unrest.

We need to ensure that people are communicating, but not by abuse, he told Sky News.

Despite similar appeals from Ireland, the United States, and the European Union, crowds of hooded teenagers and young men have taken to the streets every night this week, injuring at least 55 police officers and torching a moving bus.

For the first time in years, officers used water guns to disperse the swarming crowds late into the night, as residents peered out their windows to observe the spectacle.

Refusing to let rioters in, hundreds of older men and women stood at the gates of a "peace line" in Belfast, which separates nationalist and unionist communities.

The gates were set ablaze on Wednesday night, and police said crowds from both sides broke through to strike each other with petrol bombs, rockets, and fireworks.

It's deep-rooted, it's not just about Brexit, said Fiona McMahon, 56, of Belfast, ahead of Thursday night's latest unrest, adding that Britain's EU exit had had a "huge effect."

The British do whatever the heck they want, and we end up with everything, she told AFP.

Betrayal cries

Northern Ireland witnessed 30 years of sectarian violence, which killed 3,500 people, until a historic peace agreement in 1998.

The agreement enabled unionists and nationalists to coexist by blurring the region's position within the EU.

However, Britain's vote to leave the EU in 2016 resurrected the need for trade boundary checks, possibly weakening the 1998 agreement.

A special "protocol" was agreed upon, which diverted restrictions away from the Irish land border and toward ports that trade with the UK mainland.

It went into effect on January 1, leading many unionists to accuse London of betraying Northern Ireland by weakening its position in the UK.

Unionists were also outraged recently when Northern Irish authorities agreed not to prosecute nationalist Sinn Fein leaders for attending a massive funeral for a former paramilitary leader last year, in apparent violation of Covid restrictions.

"Destruction, crime, and the threat of violence are absolutely intolerable and unjustifiable, regardless of community concerns," said the Northern Ireland executive, which is comprised of unionist, nationalist, and centrist groups.

"While our political views on many topics vary greatly, we are all united in our support for law and order."

Brandon Lewis, the UK's Northern Ireland Secretary, visited Belfast to meet with leaders including unionist First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

He was scheduled to hold further talks on Friday after admitting that there is doubt about the EU protocol, which Foster's party wants to scrap.

"I completely understand the difficulty and sense of identity issues that people in the unionist community have felt around the protocol and its realistic implementation," he said.

Britain unilaterally extended a post-Brexit grace period deferring tests on agri-foods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain by six months last month, triggering threats of EU legal action.

With AFP inputs. 

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