Belfast, Northern Ireland – On Saturday, the 23rd anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the decades of conflict that claimed over 3,000 lives, David Devlin was on the streets trying to keep the peace.
“Anything could happen, but we are hoping for peace, hoping tonight remains calm,” they told Al Jazeera.
Devlin is a youth worker with the Forthspring Inter Community Group, located right on the peace-line between the predominantly nationalist Springfield area, and the predominantly loyalist Shankill.
Video footage of young people throwing petrol bombs at one of the gates that separate these areas – on which the words “There was never a good war or a bad peace” are painted – has been watched with horror across the world.
“Things this evening appear to be quite calm, there does not appear to be any other gatherings on either side of the interface,” Devlin said as they began their shift.
“Over the past few nights, we have been out on the ground trying to talk to young people, dissuade them from any risk-taking behaviour, trying to get them go, stay safe, and not engage in anything that is going to put their safety at risk.”
Northern Ireland has been rocked by sporadic rioting in loyalist working-class areas, amounting to the worst violence seen in years.
Loyalists back a Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, as opposed to a united Ireland.
Before the latest events, tension had been ratcheting up since the start of the year, when the new post-Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK came into effect.
The impact was quickly visible, with trucks carrying goods from Britain to Northern Ireland facing delays and scenes of some shelves in supermarkets laying empty.
More important was the sense among pro-British unionists and loyalists that these arrangements meant that Northern Ireland was being cut off from the rest of the UK and that its place in the union was under threat.
For unionists, that the hardening of the Irish Sea border came as the result of a decision by the UK government is “particularly unnerving”, professor Katy Hayward, an expert on Brexit at Queen’s University Belfast, told Al Jazeera.
“Unionism and loyalism concentrates on the union – and any perceived threat to the union – because as communities they are quite internally diverse and fragmented,” she said.
While violence has only recently erupted, the writing has been on the wall since the start of the year in every sense – posters and graffiti have called for “No Irish Sea Border”, while border post staff working at the two main ports have been threatened.
Due to concerns about their safety, port staff from Northern Ireland’s agriculture department were temporarily withdrawn in early February.
Ian Paisley, Jr, a senior MP from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports Brexit but opposes the Irish sea border, said in late January that discontent over the new arrangements was so great that some sections of the unionist community were “starting to sense they are sitting on a powder keg”.
The DUP, which has been criticised for stoking tensions, faces an increasingly precarious position.
A poll earlier this year showed that they were at risk of losing voters due to their performance on the Irish sea border, to both the more hardline TUV as well as the more liberal Alliance party.
Tensions were brought to a crescendo when the prosecution service announced it would not prosecute leading Sinn Fein party members for attending, in breach of COVID-19 guidelines, the funeral of IRA figure Bobby Storey last June.
Part of the reason not to prosecute was that funeral organisers reportedly did deals with the police, which the police deny; the DUP and other unionist parties have since demanded the resignation of Northern Ireland’s police chief over the controversy.
Days later, a loyalist protest of 100 people in an area of South Belfast on Good Friday quickly descended into violence, with petrol bombs being thrown and police officers injured.
Over the following days, disturbances took place across Northern Ireland, with cars being hijacked, bins set on fire, and an empty bus petrol-bombed.
Last Wednesday, violence spread from loyalist areas of West Belfast, as hundreds gathered on each side of the peace wall separating the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road, resulting in clashes between the two communities and police.
Other areas of Northern Ireland have been quiet, such as East Belfast, which in the past has been the site of some of the worst rioting.
“We are grateful, and I really do hope that continues and the escalation that appeared on the Shankill doesn’t begin to permeate through to other parts of the city,” said Reverend Brian Anderson of the East Belfast Mission, a charity which has been running community projects for more than 35 years in a socially deprived area of the city.
Asked what motivates young people to riot, he said: “Some of it must be the voices they are listening to. Somebody must be influencing, saying, ‘This will help our cause. Do this and you will be doing something good for unionism.’ That is totally the wrong voice, but one can only assume that that is the voices that are speaking to them.”
‘There are still issues’
While some youth workers, sports clubs, and political and community representatives have prevented or limited violence, there are growing questions over loyalist paramilitaries.
Paramilitaries continue to play a role in life in Northern Ireland, both criminal and political, and they are openly engaged with by political leaders from Britain and Northern Ireland.
Earlier this year, for instance, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a representative group for a number of paramilitaries, was included in an official meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster to raise concerns over the Irish Sea border arrangements.
The police initially said that paramilitaries were “likely” to have been behind the street violence, only to rule it out following a statement from the LCC umbrella group denying involvement.
Saturday marked the first night without street violence in over a week, due in part to the work of those on the ground but also as a sign of respect for Queen Elizabeth following the death of her husband, Prince Philip.
Darren Guy, a unionist councillor in Derry who opposed the Irish sea border, has been on the ground trying to persuade young people against rioting, which he describes as “wrong, on all levels.”
But while rioting has eased, the anger persists.
“There are still issues. Don’t think just because these few nights of trouble have ended that this issue has gone away. They don’t, they have to be worked on.”