LONDON – Hijacked a bus, pelted stones and then set fire to it. Masked youths revolt, throw rockets and homemade bombs. A press photographer attacked in the street.
For nearly a week, violent scenes from Northern Ireland's brutal past have returned in a stark warning of the fragility of a peace process established more than two decades ago and which is under mounting political and sectarian pressure.
In the midst of a controversial fallout from Brexit, politicians have pointed to a variety of causes for an explosion of anger from sections of the Protestant, so-called unionist or loyalist community determined to maintain its ties with the rest of the United Kingdom.
But analysts agree that six consecutive nights of violence, in which 55 police officers were injured and 10 arrested, mark a worrying trend.
"I think it's very serious, it's easy to see how things can escalate and hard to see how things can calm down," said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen's University, Belfast.
In the febrile aftermath of Brexit, she added, Unionists feel betrayed by the British government and feel that Northern Ireland's place in the union is under a lot of pressure as a result, so that sense of insecurity certainly heightens the stakes.
Jonathan Caine, a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords and a former adviser to six Northern Ireland secretaries, said the violence reflected dangerous tensions.
“It hasn't gotten out of hand by historical standards, but it could be and the reason isn't just the reaction to Brexit,” he said. “There are deep-seated concerns within the Unionist community and the perception that they have been left behind that everything is not aimed at them, but the Republicans,” he added, referring to sections of the Roman Catholic population who favor a united Ireland.
With riots by some ages 13 and up, the violence has shocked politicians, leading to conviction by Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Northern Ireland's power-sharing manager, who called for peace to be restored on Thursday. On Thursday, bus drivers parked in front of City Hall to protest an incident in which one of their colleagues hijacked and burned his vehicle.
Adding to concern, the latest violence took place in sensitive areas of Belfast on the border between areas populated by predominantly Protestant communities and those where most Roman Catholics live, increasing the risk of a violent response.
Despite the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that largely ended decades of bloodshed known as the Troubles, neither sectarian violence nor the paramilitary groups behind it have ever completely disappeared from Northern Ireland.
Some people believe that shadowy groups exploit sectarian fears and frustrations with the Covid-19 restrictions to cause trouble for police officers tackling the groups' criminal activities.
Although tensions have risen in recent weeks, it was a many-month incident that was the catalyst for the most recent violence, with rioters burning tires and trash in the streets.
Despite Covid-19 rules banning large gatherings, in June 2020 police allowed a funeral following the death of Bobby Storey, who was believed to be the intelligence chief of the Irish Republican Army, an armed group dedicated to a united Ireland that waged a violent campaign against British forces during the so-called Troubles.
Among the approximately 2,000 people who attended his funeral were senior members of Sinn Fein, a party that mainly represents Roman Catholic voters. The party was once seen as the political wing of the I.R.A. but now plays a prominent role in Belfast's democratic power-sharing system.
A decision last week not to prosecute mourners for violating Covid regulations infuriated Unionists, sparked protests and prompted Northern Ireland's Prime Minister Arlene Foster to demand the resignation of police chief Simon Byrne , because of his handling of the funeral.
Mr Caine said that police decisions in Northern Ireland are particularly difficult given the risk of heating disorders, and that the security forces could be put in an impossible position. Nonetheless, the lack of prosecution "played a part in the feeling among some Unionists that it is one rule for Sinn Fein and another for the rest of us," he said.
Since the 1998 peace deal, there has been discontent among some Unionists "and the perception that it was a victory for the Republicans, that they have all the benefits and that the Loyalists have nothing," he added.
But tensions had also arisen since then Great Britain completed the final phase of Brexit on January 1. That put an end to a system where companies in Northern Ireland shared the same trade rules as those of Ireland, which is still part of the European Union.
During the endless Brexit negotiations, a lot of energy has been put into avoiding the need for controls of goods at Northern Ireland's highly sensitive land border with Ireland.
Under an agreement in a protocol by Mr Johnson, Northern Ireland was given a special economic status extending across the United Kingdom and the trade systems of the European Union.
Unionists were told by Boris Johnson that there would be no border in the Irish Sea, even on January 1 they were told that we will never undermine the integrity of the UK's internal market, so they feel betrayed by it protocol, ”said Professor Hayward.
The situation is particularly delicate for Northern Ireland's greatest political force, the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ms Foster. It campaigned for Brexit, opposing a softer version proposed by the former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in order to eventually get one that brings exactly what it didn't want: a more tangible and visible divide between Northern Ireland and the United States. rest of the UK.
However, the European Union also contributed to the crisis when it announced briefly in January that it wanted to be effective suspend the protocol by activating an emergency mechanism in the event of a dispute over the delivery of vaccines. While the British government had also threatened to break the treaty over a separate issue – and the European Union reversed its decision within hours – this united the Unionists in anger.
'Those few hours later January 29 changed everything, ”said Professor Hayward, adding that the Brussels decision included Unionist suspicions about the protocol and shifted senior politicians from reluctantly accepting it to outright opposition.
With Unionist support for the protocol disappearing, confidence in the police in question and friction over Brexit between the British and Irish governments, it may be difficult to calm the violence.
“In the past, these matters have been mitigated by very careful, well-supported actions by community workers on the ground, supported by the political environment and rhetoric and demonstrations of the success of peace at the very highest level – including the British-Irish relationship,” said Professor Hayward. .
"You look around now," she added, "And think: all those things are really under pressure."