(Reuters) – Northern Ireland’s worst period of violence since a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of conflict has highlighted just how fragile that accord is and raised fears that the province cannot fully emerge from its bloody past.
Petrol bombs and guns returned to the streets of Belfast after a vote by local councilors to end a century-old tradition of flying Britain’s flag from City Hall every day provoked pro-British loyalists into riots that have raged for much of the past five weeks.
For locals, it has stirred memories of the 30 years of sectarian conflict that pitted Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland against British security forces and mainly Protestant loyalists determined to stay in the United Kingdom.
The police, who are the target of the latest disturbances, say they have contained the unrest and with rioters unable to muster numbers much larger than 200, the threat to the 15 years of peace has so far been limited.
However business has been severely disrupted, Belfast’s improving reputation tarnished and some politicians worry that they can no longer get through to those who feel they have no place in a new Northern Ireland where they sense they are both economically and demographically under pressure.
“The politicians have lost control,” Danny Kennedy, a member of the province’s second largest pro-British party, the Ulster Unionists, and a minister in Northern Ireland’s devolved government, told Reuters.
“Twenty years ago when the two leaders of Unionism issued a statement appealing to loyalists to stay off the streets, they would have been obeyed. It’s a worrying factor and a new factor in Loyalism – the constituency which says things have gone too far and nobody is standing up for what we stand for.”
That constituency is mainly made up of disillusioned teens who, with faces covered by scarves and British flags draped over their shoulders, pelted police with petrol bombs and fireworks for much of the past week.
“NO FEAR OF ANYONE”
While police have accused pro-British militant groups of exploiting the violence, the angry crowds have been dominated by younger faces with the disturbances arranged via social media sites likeFacebook, much like riots in London in 2011.
Of the 107 people arrested since the trouble began at the beginning of December, police said one third have been under the age of 18 with an 11-year-old boy the youngest amongst them.
“The scary thing is, these kids aren’t listening. For a lot of them it’s just fun, a game of cat and mouse with police which is better entertainment than their Playstation,” said Mark Houston, director of the East Belfast Mission group that is working with protesters to try and quell the unrest.
“They don’t have any prospects, there’s a hopelessness so you’ve a lot people involved in recreational rioting, with nobody really with the power to switch it off. They’ve no fear of anyone and it isn’t any one group doing it.”
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