Crowds of loyalist youths clashed with PSNI police on Friday night following appeals for “protests” on loyalist social media pages. The trouble erupted at locations where demonstrations had been orchestrated on Facebook, primarily in Belfast.
The most serious violence was reported at the corner of Sandy Row and Shaftesbury Square in the south city centre. The PSNI had closed off Shaftesbury Square and the Donegall Road to facilitate the loyalist gathering in a move reminiscent of the flags protests of 2012, when there were weeks of disturbances following a council decision to remove the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall.
At one point on Friday evening, petrol bomb and bricks were thrown at lines of riot police with a crowd of around 200 people involved. The PSNI said eight members had suffered injuries.
There were also reports of trouble at the Lanark Way interface in West Belfast, with stones and bottles being thrown, while a loyalist crowd also gathered with intent earlier this evening at an intersection in Ballymena, County Antrim.
In Belfast, a reputed loyalist double agent has already been accused of working to foment trouble there. The motivation for the disturbances is unclear, but loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson suggested anger at recently introduced post-Brexit port checks, or ‘the Irish Sea Border’, could be involved.
The failure to bring prosecutions against Sinn Féin over the Bobby Storey funeral was also blamed, although recent operations by the PSNI against loyalist drug dealers are also believed to be a more likely source of discontent.
Senior unionist politicians have been widely condemned for failing to condemn the scenes. Claire Hanna of the SDLP said she was “sad” to see the disorder in her South Belfast constituency, which she linked to electoral politics.
“Usual suspects with no vision whip up tension for electoral gain, which they never use to improve life for those they pretend to represent. History repeats, people lose hope, kids get criminal records, communities pull apart. There’s a better way,” she tweeted.
Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey condemned what he described as “running skirmishes” in the Sandy Row area, which he blamed on unionist grandstanding over the outcome of Brexit.
“The DUP and political unionism are failing unionist working class communities through their dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric which has is continuing to lead to heightened tensions,” he said.
“This is a time for calm heads and responsible leadership. I appeal to the DUP and political unionism to show leadership, to end their dangerous rhetoric and to ensure there is an urgent de-escalation of tensions.”
The trouble in Belfast follows sporadic disturbances over the past four nights in loyalist areas of the Waterside in Derry, where youths blocked roads and threw petrol bombs at the PSNI.
Wheelie bins and pallets were set on fire and placed on a road in the Lincoln Court area on Thursday, while a digger parked in the same area was set alight. A fire engine which responded to the blaze came under attack by youths according to the PSNI.
Nationalists in Derry have been urged to be vigilant following a report that loyalist youths armed with iron bars had attempted to enter a nationalist estate in the Waterside area.
Sinn Féin Councillor Christopher Jackson called for action to be taken to stop incidents that have left residents in the adjacent nationalist areas living in fear.
He praised local youth workers for their efforts in trying to prevent this situation escalating and young people “for showing restraint in the face of blatant provocation”.
“The people of this area just want to live in peace and quiet particularly in the mist of the current Covid pandemic,” he said.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Martina Anderson called for an end to the trouble.
“There is no place for this type of activity and residents in nearby estates should not have to live in fear as a result,” she said.
“I would urge community and political leaders and the PSNI to step up and show leadership to put an end to this activity now.”