The Stormont assembly is being recalled this morning (8 April) for an emergency debate following the sixth consecutive night of violence in Northern Ireland. Seven more police officers were injured, a journalist for the Belfast Telegraph was assaulted and a bus hijacked and set alight as violence flared up on both sides of the Lanark Way interface in west Belfast yesterday, where the unionist Shankill Road meets the nationalist Springfield Road area, divided by “peace gates”.
Politicians across the spectrum in Northern Ireland have condemned the violence, as have the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Stormont politicians will need to speak with one voice today to bring an end to the violent disorder, but this will be a challenge as tensions and serious differences in perspective fester among them.
Arlene Foster’s response last night exemplifies the problem. The First Minister and DUP leader wrote on Twitter of the petrol bombing of a bus: “This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism. They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Féin. My thoughts are with the bus driver.” What looked to some like the most prominent unionist politician stating that she understood the cause of unionist anger but that violence has no place in expression of that anger, looked to many others like equivocation and a further incitement of discontent.
There are three broad causes of these riots: the simmering unionist anger over the Irish Sea border as a result of Brexit; the decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin politicians for an alleged coronavirus breach at the funeral of Bobby Storey last June; and loyalist paramilitary groups encouraging young people in their communities to cause trouble, partly in protest at the above, and partly to push back against recent police action to curb their criminal activity and community influence. If you miss any of those out you fail accurately to capture the nuances of the situation in Northern Ireland, where serious political ideals are so often muddied with base politics and exploited by groups with other motives.
While the different parties place different emphases on each of the above, it is hard to see how Stormont will manage to speak as one. The DUP doesn’t want violence but it does want anger at the policing of republican events and the decision not to prosecute its Sinn Féin partners in government over alleged coronavirus breaches, and it is still calling for the resignation of Northern Ireland’s chief constable Simon Byrne over the issue. That sentence demonstrates what a fine line it treads. It’s a question of how much space the other parties will give to that anger, how much legitimacy will be given to unionist concerns, and whether the DUP will be forced to soften its position. But the biggest question is how the party stoking the anger can possibly speak as one with the party that is the target of much of that anger, and even if they do so today, how that can be sustained in the days and weeks ahead.