(CN) --- They're scenes reminiscent of Northern Ireland's dark past: Working-class youths throwing rocks and petrol bombs at police on rain-pelted streets; a double-decker bus hijacked and lit on fire; masked men seen running down a dreary Belfast street toward a riot with crowds clapping and cheering them on.
Northern Ireland is in the midst of a wave of violence and political anger that many warned would happen once the United Kingdom exited the European Union and enacted its Brexit strategy, upending a precarious balance that's kept the peace in one of Europe's most volatile regions.
For the past week, Belfast and other cities have turned combustible as Northern Ireland's pro-British Protestant community, known as unionists and loyalists, turns its grievances over Brexit into protests, marches and violence.
The week of violence was sparked by anger over a March 30 decision by Northern Ireland's prosecutors to not bring charges against the political leaders of Sinn Fein, the dominant Catholic political party, for violating anti-Covid restrictions in June 2020 by holding a large outdoor funeral procession for Bobby Storey, a prominent commander of the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles who later became a Sinn Fein politician.
The decision not to bring charges served as a spark to light pent up anger over Brexit.
For many Protestants, the Brexit deal that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with the EU was a betrayal because it kept Northern Ireland aligned with many EU rules and regulations, a condition that was necessary to prevent the need for customs and border checks at hundreds of road crossings between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which is part of the EU. A land border, British and EU leaders agreed, could ignite a return to sectarian violence. During the Troubles, British checkpoints were targeted and the border became a symbol of British rule in Ireland.
Since the U.K.'s exit from the EU on Jan. 1, goods are checked as they cross the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But for Protestants, this arrangement strikes fear in their hearts because they see it as severing them economically and politically from the rest of the U.K. They now are demanding that this so-called “Irish Sea border” be scrapped.
At a deeper level, they also fear that this new post-Brexit era is the beginning of a process that could end up bringing about a united Ireland. Catholic politicians are pushing for a referendum on making Northern Ireland part of Ireland.
Unionists, by definition and history, see themselves inextricably linked to the British crown and they declare allegiance to the Union Jack. They see the push for a united Ireland as an existential threat and their political leaders talk about leaving Northern Ireland if it ever becomes part of the Irish republic.
In a paradoxical twist of history, today many Protestants instead of Catholics feel they are a minority of second-class citizens who are mistreated by police and ignored by politicians. In the 1960s, discrimination against the Catholic minority led to the outbreak of the Troubles, a bloody sectarian conflict that lasted three decades.
“There has been a concerted effort to subdue the loyalist community. The community is being vilified, they have been demonized at every opportunity,” Andrew McCormick, a community worker in unionist neighborhoods of East Belfast, told the BBC in an interview.
He blamed politicians for not taking into consideration the anger unionists felt over Northern Ireland's status as a region aligned to the EU and Ireland after Brexit.
Since the street violence started a week ago, at least 74 police officers have been injured in clashes. So far, no deaths have been reported and only a small number of people have been arrested, some as young as 13.
In a concerning development, Thursday night saw street violence erupt in a Catholic neighborhood of Belfast where police used a water cannon to disperse rioters. Also, there have been reports of Catholics and Protestants launching rocks and petrol bombs at each other in Belfast.
The riots have been relatively small so far, but there are concerns the violence will spread and put at risk the region's peace, which was established with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Saturday marks the peace treaty's 23rd anniversary and the occasion may be marred by an escalation of violence.
“We are facing a time of crisis in Northern Ireland. The possibility of violence spiraling out of control is a reality that causes us great concern,” Methodist Church leaders said in a statement calling on politicians “to choose their language carefully” and not inflame “passions that might lead some to engage in violence.”
Politicians in Northern Ireland are condemning the violence, but they have also added to the tensions.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the main Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has been criticized for spurring the protests with her attacks on Sinn Fein politicians and the Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that covers the question of customs checks at ports on the Irish Sea.
In one statement, she condemned the protests as “vandalism and attempted murder” that “do not represent unionism or loyalism” and in the same sentence said they “only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.”
The week of violence has prompted emergency talks between British and Northern Irish officials and caught the attention of the White House. President Joe Biden has Irish roots and he is a strong supporter of the Good Friday Agreement.
On Thursday, the White House said it was “concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland” and said it was “steadfast” in its support for “a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard won peace.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the architect of the U.K.'s exit from the EU, is the politician most at risk of being blamed for the violence. In winning the ferocious political battle over Brexit, he stands accused of betraying Northern Ireland's Protestant community and downplaying the threat Brexit posed to peace.
He issued a statement on Thursday, the day after loyalist rioters hijacked a bus and lit it on fire, expressing his concern.
“I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland,” the prime minister said. “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”
Political commentators mocked him.
“Man who set fire to the house, fanned the flames, added accelerant, repeatedly lied about it, is now 'deeply concerned' as it is 'literally' going up in flames,” commented Deirdre Heenan, a professor of social policy at Ulster University, in a tweet.
Johnson's government has questioned the legality of the Northern Ireland Protocol and even said it was prepared to break its terms, acknowledging that doing so would be a violation of an international treaty. The protocol is now being challenged in the courts.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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