LONDON - After six consecutive nights of rioting in Belfast, fears are growing of a return to violence in Northern Ireland, nearly 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to three decades of sectarian killings and bomb attacks.
Pro-British unionist supporters are angry at elements of the agreement that Britain signed to leave the European Union (EU), which went into effect in January, and which they believe jeopardize Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. Tensions have boiled over.
A bus was hijacked and set on fire Wednesday in Belfast as crowds of youths hurled stones and gasoline bombs at police. Dozens of officers were injured, and several people were arrested. A photojournalist from the Belfast Telegraph newspaper was assaulted while covering the protests.
Much of the violence occurred on Shankill Road in west Belfast, a long-standing frontier between the mostly Protestant unionist and mostly Catholic, pro-Irish nationalist communities.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an end to the rioting.
"I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland, especially attacks on PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), who are protecting the public and businesses, attacks on a bus driver and the assault of a journalist. The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality," Johnson tweeted on Wednesday.
Political leaders of the power-sharing government at Stormont in Belfast, which was created as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, condemned the violence. Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said, "Just as it was wrong in the past and was never justified, so it is wrong now."
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, leader of the nationalist Sinn Fein Party, called for dialogue.
"It's only through democratic politics that we can solve our problems and concerns," she told lawmakers.
Those problems are rooted in Britain's exit from the EU, called Brexit, which made the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland an external frontier of the EU. There were fears on all sides that any hard land border, with its associated infrastructure and checks on goods and vehicles, could provoke a return to sectarian violence.
Part of the Brexit agreement, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, stipulates that all checks on goods traveling from Britain to Northern Ireland should instead be carried out at ports on either side of the Irish Sea. That has created an effective border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, said analyst Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen's University Belfast.
"This has led to some sense of unease, in particular among unionist and loyalist communities, who feel that their place in the union (United Kingdom) is under threat. For many people, of course, borders in Northern Ireland are not just about customs and technicalities. They're also symbolically very significant," she told VOA.
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016 by a majority of 56% to 44%, but Britain as a whole voted to leave by a narrow majority. There were widespread predictions that Britain's exit would undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Parts of Northern Ireland remain deeply split along sectarian lines. Many Catholic nationalists want unification with Ireland, while Protestant unionists want to remain part of the United Kingdom.
"Brexit is a huge transformation. So essentially, the peace process in Northern Ireland relied on a careful balance between Britain and Ireland, Northern Ireland being both British and Irish and within the EU. That was possible not just in economic and legal terms, obviously following the same rules, et cetera, but also in political and symbolic terms like the British-Irish relationship and partnership in the EU, (which) was very important. And that's been very much disrupted by Brexit," Hayward said.
"The peace process … needs constant negotiation and care, and also compromise. And I think there is a bit of a concern that maybe both the U.K. and the EU felt that they compromised quite a lot on the protocol. And both of them did, no doubt about that. But they also possibly need to come into implementing the protocol with that continued frame of mind," Hayward told VOA.
There have been long-standing difficulties between the parties that share power in Northern Ireland's government, and analysts say recent political disputes have exacerbated the situation. The pro-British Democratic Unionist Party has strongly criticized a decision by police not to prosecute Sinn Fein members for attending a large funeral for a senior republican last year that broke COVID-19 regulations.
Sinn Fein blame the Democratic Unionist Party for stoking tensions through their opposition to the new Brexit trading arrangements and their call for Northern Ireland's police chief to resign for allowing the funeral to go ahead.
While the police have been the main target of loyalist violence, there have been sporadic clashes across sectarian lines.
"It's all too easy to see how things can get worse. I think that that's the biggest concern at the moment," Hayward said.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who has Irish roots, has voiced concern over the impact of Brexit on peace in Northern Ireland.
"My view and the view of my predecessor, of the Obama-Biden administration on the Good Friday Agreements, we strongly support them. (We) think it's critically important to be maintained, and the political economic stability of Northern Ireland is very much in the interest of all our peoples, and people-to-people ties," Biden told Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin through video link March 17.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the president was monitoring the situation closely.
"We continue to encourage both the European Union and the U.K. government to prioritize pragmatic solutions to safeguard and advance the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland," Psaki told reporters.
Political leaders in Dublin and Brussels have also called for dialogue. Given that the "Irish border question" dominated Brexit negotiations for several years, analysts say it's clear there are no easy answers.