Bus hijacked as Northern Ireland violence continues

A bus was hijacked and set on fire, a press photographer was attacked and clashes between loyalists and nationalists broke out during another night of violence in Northern Ireland.

Scenes of violence – including police attacks, gasoline bombs and rioting – have raged repeatedly on the streets of Belfast and Derry in recent weeks.

The Northern Irish executive will meet this morning to be briefed on the ongoing unrest. The heads of state and government meet for the briefing at 10 a.m., an hour before the Stormont assembly is recalled, to discuss the latest scenes of violence in mainly loyalist areas.

The riot and unrest has been attributed to tensions in loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland Protocol to Brexit and how the PSNI handled alleged coronavirus violations by Sinn Fein at the funeral of Republican Bobby Storey.

Some loyalists say the Northern Ireland Protocol to Brexit has undermined their place in the Union.

And the prosecution’s announcement last week that no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including Deputy First Secretary Michelle O’Neill, who attended a major Republican funeral during the pandemic, sparked indignation among some loyalists out.

Unrest has since broken out in several areas of the loyalist working class, many of which are still exposed to the vicious influence of paramilitary gangs.

Belfast, Londonderry, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballymena have all seen scenes of violence that many hoped would make history.

There has also been riot in Republican areas in recent days.

In the worst case, young people on either side of a peace line in West Belfast threw gasoline bombs and other missiles at each other by Wednesday evening.

For loyalists, the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June exacerbated the long-standing view of many in their community that state institutions give Republicans preferential treatment.

For apparent confirmation, they pointed to the police involvement with the Sinn Fein funeral homes ahead of an event that saw around 2,000 people take to the streets of West Belfast when public gatherings were strictly limited.

This interaction with the planners was one of the reasons senior prosecutors condemned the prosecution of Ms. O’Neill and her colleagues – the other was the “incoherent” nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 regulations at the time.

Criticism of the PSNI approach was not limited to harsh elements within loyalism, with all major union parties calling for Police Chief Simon Byrne to resign, claiming he had lost the trust of their community.

The DUP’s first minister, Arlene Foster, said she would no longer deal with Mr Byrne.

Her lack of communication with the region’s police chief at a time of escalating street violence and just weeks after she met with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to discuss the Brexit case has been sharply criticized by political rivals.

Non-union parties have accused Ms Foster and other union political leaders of fueling tension not only over the funeral on the floor but also over the Irish maritime border.

The DUP leader and other prominent voices within the union and loyalism arena insist that they only reflect real-held concerns that they say need to be addressed – particularly through Mr Byrne’s resignation and the consolidation of minutes.

Amid the current union demand for Byrne’s head and claims of “two-tier” policing, it should be noted that the PSNI Police Chief two months ago made similar allegations of discriminatory behavior within nationalism.

This was sparked by a controversial police operation in Belfast which left a man seriously injured in a loyalist gun massacre during the riot at the site of a memorial event after officials intervened to investigate suspected Covid law violations.

Following that incident at the location of the Ormeau Road betting shops murders in 1992, Ms. O’Neill claimed that there had been a “crisis of confidence” in the PSNI among nationalists even though she had stopped asking Mr. Byrne to resign.

The protocol and the controversy surrounding the funeral did not create the loyalist perception that the system was being weighed against them, but built on a narrative articulated by an increasing number of loyalists who supported the peace process – particularly the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – gave them a raw deal.

They cite underinvestment and deprivation in areas of the loyalist working class as further evidence that they missed the peace wins.

Nationalists and Republicans reject this premise, insisting that their communities have had many problems with poverty and unemployment since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Paramilitary elements are undoubtedly involved in much of the disorder seen in the region over the past few days – either directly or by getting young people to cause rioting on their behalf.

In Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, however, an additional factor plays a role.

In these areas, the PSNI believes the paramilitary involvement is motivated less by Brexit or the Storey funeral than by a rogue faction – the South East Antrim UDA – responding to recent police operations against their criminal empire.

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