British unionist and Irish nationalist gangs are clashing in Belfast, and nobody can agree on why

Riots in Belfast
(Image credit: Screenshot/YouTube/BBC News)

Sectarian violence not seen in nearly a decade has broken out in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with gangs of young British unionists and Irish nationalists throwing rocks, fireworks, and petrol bombs at each other over a "peace fence" for a second night Thursday. Earlier Thursday, leaders of the five-party Northern Ireland unity government jointly called for calm, as did British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin, and U.S. President Biden.

Northern Ireland police used water cannons and riot gear to try and break up Thursday's riots, following a violent Wednesday night, when rival unionist and nationalist gangs briefly smashed open the peace wall dividing the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, and the unionists hijacked a bus and set it aflame. Since the unrest started March 29, 74 police officers have been injured, including 19 hurt in Thursday night's melee. It isn't clear how many rioters have been injured, as they "often avoid hospitals for fear of arrest," Politico reports.

"Northern Ireland leaders unanimously condemned rising street violence," Politico's Shawn Pogatchnik reports from Belfast. "But even at critical moments of conflict, the two sides cannot agree on what people are rioting about." Irish nationalist say unionist politicians are inciting violence with their charged rhetoric around the post-Brexit Irish Sea border, or European Union custom checks on British goods coming into Northern Ireland. Unionists accuse the police of giving special treatment to the nationalists. The violence started when prosecutors decided last week against prosecuting 24 Sinn Féin leaders who broke COVID-19 protocols to attend an Irish Republican Army funeral in June.

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"Locally, much blame is heaped on Johnson for choosing a 'hard' Brexit that left Northern Ireland in the EU single market," Pogatchnik explains. "That move shocked unionists who had backed Brexit on the assumption that the entire U.K. would leave together. Reflecting its disengagement to date, the British government announced Thursday it would seek to defuse tensions by dispatching its Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, to ... Northern Ireland."

There have long been concerns that Brexit would reignite decades of Catholic-Protestant bloodshed put to bed with the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

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