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FA: Recent Outbreak of Violence In Northern Ireland Increases Concerns of History Repeating Itself

April 17, 2021, | CTG


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT to focus on the recent acts of violence and attacks within Northern Ireland (NI). Multiple consecutive attacks occurred over twelve evenings targeting the Police, vehicles, infrastructure, and property. The destruction and injuries caused to make this the worst violent demonstration NI has seen in decades. After dealing with the outcome of Brexit and the strict COVID-19 lockdowns, the funeral of Bobby Storey has sparked controversy. The funeral of the former head of the IRA Intelligence was attended by over one hundred people, despite the thirty-person restriction. The Police decided against prosecuting those breaking the restrictions, causing loyalists to react and rebel against the Police. Violence is likely to increase as NI begins to ease lockdown restrictions, that ongoing violence could lead to further political instability, increased injuries, deaths, and structural damage. The current CTG Threat Matrix indicates the likelihood of further violence to be HIGH, as a solution to stop the violence is still being determined.


CTG is on HIGH alert for if further attacks occur, and the impact this will have within Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom (UK). Historical tensions saw a terroristic era with multiple tragedies, with concerns this is the start of another. Amidst a pandemic, the Police are not only working to prevent the spread of the virus but are now under attack from loyalists. The violence is expected to increase as those involved feel an injustice has been done. Further preventive measures must be taken to detect, deter and defeat future violent attacks.


April 10, 2021, saw the end of the twelve nightly attacks that took place in multiple locations within Northern Ireland. On March 29, 2021, the first attack began in Derry/Londonderry when a petrol bomb was thrown at on-duty Police Officers working to disperse a large crowd amidst the COVID-19 restrictions. Fortunately, no injuries occurred. In the days following more petrol bombs along with fireworks, bricks, bottles, and heavy objects were used in efforts to harm Police Officers. As tensions continued, three hijacked vehicles were burnt out on the outskirts of Belfast, thirty people caused roadblocks and burnt two cars, a digger was set alight, and attacks on a care home in Nelson Drive. Coming days saw riots breaking out, resulting in eight officers injured and seven people arrested. The sporadic violence led to bins being set alight in the street, throughout NI more petrol bombs were thrown at police and pallets set on fire, in Carrickfergus petrol bombs were thrown at the police, and in County Antrim crowds of fifty people gathered and twenty petrol bombs thrown, injuring four officers. On April 5, 2021, over three hundred royalists took to the streets in Ballymena and Portadown to march and promote the loyalist agenda.


24 hours without attacks was soon awoken when on April 7, 2021, a bus was hijacked and burned in Belfast, leading to more rioting and eight injured police officers. The chaotic and uncontrollable violence led Police to use a water cannon, the first time in over six years, to try and stop the violence. These extreme measures highlight the severity of the violence. Onlookers took to the streets standing shoulder to shoulder to create a peace line, in a bid to control the violence. They soon became targets for attack, this time both from royalists and nationalists. A turn of events saw the violence and protests postponed in respect to the Duke of Edinburgh's death. Although violence has reduced compared to the weeks previous, small riots and attacks on police with petrol bombs, stones, and other missiles are still occurring. Over the weekend, a vehicle rammed into a police car and bins, before being set on fire. Officers have been attacked, with fourteen injured. [1] April 10, 2021, saw no attacks and has put Northern Ireland on the imminent threat of more attacks in the near future. Throughout the twelve days, over ninety police officers were injured, property damaged and warnings issued to those living in Northern Ireland.


Explosive Attacks in Northern Ireland[2]


Recent violence in Northern Ireland is thought to be in response to current events, such as Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), the funeral of Bobby Storey, and the distant possibility of a united Ireland. Past conflicts and historical influences have stirred up tensions once again, which should not be overlooked. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 (Good Friday Agreement) was signed by the UK Government's prime minister Tony Blair, agreeing that if at any point the majority of people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland favored a united Ireland, Britain would honor the decision and relinquish control of Ulster.[3] Likely, the impediment of trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol has both economically and symbolically distanced them from the rest of the UK in the eyes of both loyalists and nationalists communities. The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the treaty that allowed the UK to leave the EU, meaning checks to be introduced to goods traveling from the UK to NI.[4] The royalists and the nationalists will rightfully regard the recent disruption to trade across the Irish Sea as a threat to their commercial links with the UK, which could potentially cause many Northern Irish businesses to strengthen their commercial links with those in the Republic.


While members of the nationalist community will almost certainly welcome this commercial shift, it will deeply trouble loyalists. This shift has the potential to increase support for a united Ireland as it may lead many in Northern Ireland to regard the Republic as a more geographically logical and financially viable trading partner than the UK. Should this shift in public opinion occur in the coming months and years, the Belfast Agreement has the potential to bring about an end to British control of Northern Ireland. This notion is corroborated by the decision of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), who represent several paramilitary groups, to formally withdraw their support for the Belfast Agreement due to increased concerns surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.[5] This withdrawal indicates that the civil unrest that has erupted in recent weeks is the result of deeper-rooted concern amongst the loyalist population in the country. While the agreement alone does not serve to explain the violence, the implications of the 1998 treaty probably exacerbate the commercial disruption and symbolic damage done by the Northern Ireland Protocol in the eyes of the rioters.


This is the first time in Northern Ireland’s history that members of the loyalist community have committed such large-scale attacks targeting the Police. Even throughout the troubles, Police were never a prime target. Recent events have influenced the actions of the loyalists, and with the new changes coming more into effect, the opportunity for violence is increased. Alternatively, as the primary grievances of the rioters appear to relate to recent actions of the UK Government, it is possible that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is being targeted due to their historical reputation as being an arm of the British establishment in Northern Ireland. This makes them a logical target for anyone looking to violently voice their disapproval of the actions of the UK Government. The readiness of loyalist youth to commit violence against the PSNI indicates that public opinion within loyalist communities has significantly shifted since the beginning of the century.


Brexit

Brexit has caused old border tensions to be reawakened leaving NI loyalists angry with the UK’s post-Brexit trading agreements. Despite promises made by the UK Government of no trade barriers between NI and Britain when the UK left the EU, the trading agreement has created barriers between Britain and NI. Since Brexit, food, and goods imports are checked between Europe and NI, causing delays and disruption. Trade is likely to see interruptions, impacting the NI economy. The creation of a new border within the Irish Sea has struck issues with the NI Union, believing that the border is a betrayal of the UK Government. Boris Johnson has been described as “dishonest” by the NI Justice Minister and has ruled out the possibility of Irish Sea barriers at the 2018 DUP annual conference. This protocol is drawing a divide within Irish politics and calls for urgent new trade agreements. With new trade agreements, this could revert the border to pre-Brexit conditions, decreasing anger and the opportunity for violent protests.


COVID-19

The declaration of the pandemic has seen countless lockdowns, quarantine periods, a decrease in social and economic stability. With public places and educational facilities closed, people are becoming agitated and angry that their lives are being impacted. A small minority of those involved in the attacks are reported to be those who are seeking relief from their inner stresses, opposed to being a part of the political agenda. Increased interest in fighting for boredom is a huge concern and calls for alternative outlets of entertainment to be introduced. These individuals may also not be in favor of the Police, as they are on the front line and the authoritative body that has been enforcing COVID-19 measures. The opportunity to release anger on the targets may be another reason for displaying group behaviors. Concerns rise that as Northern Ireland and the UK begin to ease lockdown restrictions, this gives rise to bigger events, crowds, and the opening of infrastructures. Without a strategy, these become vulnerable targets of further attacks. With injuries to the Police force, it is crucial to revise control measurements, strengthen advances, and reduce violence opportunities, in the bid of removing mass violence within NI.


Bobby Storey’s Funeral

Bobby Storey, a former high-ranking IRA Intelligence Officer, recently passed away. Storey’s funeral saw huge crowds assembling on streets and within the church in west Belfast, breaking COVID-19 restrictions. It was reported that twenty-four Sinn Fein politicians were in attendance along with other significant politicians. The attending politicians are those in charge of implementing virus preventive measures, but these were not adhered to when attending the funeral.[6] The Public Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute those who attended the funeral, including the Sinn Fein politician. The lack of criminal charges has generated anger due to the apparent inconsistency between the treatment of politicians and the rest of the public. This public outrage has resulted in the PSNI being targeted by rioters. Calls from senior loyalist politicians, including First Minister Arlene Foster, for PSNI Chief Simon Byrne to resign have not yet received a formal response. Many others are in favor of the resignation, and failure to do so could increase the threat of further violence.


The perpetrators of the violence in NI are mostly teenagers and young men from predominantly working-class, loyalist, Protestant communities. Although the violence has occurred primarily in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, and Ballymena, it is not yet clear whether the perpetrators originate from these neighborhoods specifically. Due to ongoing travel restrictions relating to COVID-19, it is presumed that perpetrators are local, as they do not have the means to travel extensive distances. Many involved are too young to have a thorough understanding of the issues created by Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, which suggests that they are being influenced by older members of their community, or even those with connections to loyalist paramilitary groups. Live video recording from the perspective of the rioters shows that those involved are almost certainly galvanized by the sense of mob-mentality.[7] Several clashes have occurred around the Lanark Way interface, which separates the loyalist Shankill Road from the nationalist Springfield Road. This indicates that sectarianism could have become a motive for some of the rioters. Reports indicate that the nationalist contingent on the Springfield Road side of the interface was significantly larger and more violent than their loyalist counterparts, with several dozens ignoring a call to disperse and continuing to throw rocks, bottles, and fireworks over the wall towards Shankill Road.[8] The size of the nationalist gathering, coupled with their similar behavior with that of the loyalist youths, leads us to believe that this was an attempted retaliation from nationalist youth. If this was indeed an organized response from members of the nationalist community, the situation is at risk of transforming into a sectarian issue in the coming weeks.


Patterns of the violence show escalation from day one to day twelve. This included more weaponry, an increased number of rioters, and greater geographical reach. Outcomes of injuries and damages occurred, no deaths were reported. Many arrests were made, and weaponry confiscated, but despite these measures, violence continued. April 9, 2021, saw attacks paused, presumably linked to the death of His Royal Highness Duke of Edinburgh. With the funeral date set to April 17, 2021, violence could be likely to continue once respects have been paid. If the violence was to resume, attacks will likely become more frequent, spread geographically within NI, attract larger crowds and lead to worse outcomes. Expansion of geographical reach, and the number of rioters, make it possible for retaliation from republican groups. Not only would this be detrimental to the remaining political and religious stability in NI, but it could see the reintroduction of the troubles.


CTG recommends that the ongoing violence and potential threats are monitored, specifically as NI begins to ease COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. Preventive actions must be revised and implemented to minimize injuries, fatalities, and damage. Ongoing conflict is a reminder of the violence NI and the UK suffered for decades. Rising conflicts must be reduced and removed to ensure history does not repeat itself. For more detailed information, such as a Threat Assessment report, or more tailored reports to specific threats, contact us at info@counterterrorismgroup.com.


CTG assesses that the current threat climate is HIGH and that further violent attacks and demonstrations within NI are imminent. CTG evaluation indicates that more violence is expected as the COVID-19 restrictions are eased, giving rise to bigger crowds, more events, and further social interactions. These circumstances also give rise to acts of terror. As establishments begin to open, and streets become more overcrowded, the threat of violence and mob mentality is increased. Police are already facing challenges posed by COVID-19, and dealing with injuries sustained from previous attacks, meaning more violence is likely to lead to worsened outcomes. Analysis indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that more violence is likely, with further injuries, fatalities, and critical infrastructure damage. The political and religious battle in Ireland began decades ago and has laid dormant waiting for an opportunity. A series of events has allowed violence to resume, with recent events fueling the tensions once more.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is a unit of the global risk consulting and security firm Paladin 7. CTG proactively searches for and analyzes the threat of terrorism that comes from International Terrorist Organizations, Domestic Terrorist Organizations, and Individuals determined to inflict terror upon societies, organizations, and individuals. Our international and national security professionals set up protective measures to detect, deter, and prevent, discourage, and dissuade any terrorist organization or individual from attacking organizations and individuals. We work to protect our clients from any terrorist threat or attack. We also work proactively with the proper authorities to find those in terrorist organizations and individuals who will cause harm and assist in bringing them to justice and mitigating the threat long-term.

[1] Timeline: How Northern Ireland's violence unfolded, BBC, April 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-56675894

[2] Ireland: Sectarian riots – a bad end to a bad peace by Montecruz Foto, no copyright license.

[3] The Belfast Agreement, Gov.uk, April 1998, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement

[4] Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why are there checks?, BBC, March 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-53724381

[5] Loyalist group withdraws support for Good Friday Agreement, BBC News, March 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-56276653

[6] Bobby Storey funeral: UUP calls for resignation of Simon Byrne, BBC News, April 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-56609441

[7] Northern Ireland Violence: What’s happening and why?, BBC News - Youtube, April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1arhL5eHLLM&ab_channel=BBCNews

[8] Belfast: police use water cannons on rioters in seventh night of unrest, The Guardian, April 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/08/belfast-police-water-cannon-rioters-seventh-night-unrest

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