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13th Apr 2021

Belfast riots: ‘It feels like a game once you’re in it’

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt

The rioting on the streets of the Northern Irish capital, has been described by the police as the worst violence in the country for years

Petrol bombs thrown at police and into buses containing civilians, cars hijacked, 88 police officers injured, and Northern Irish politicians holding emergency meetings.

You’d be forgiven for thinking these headlines were reports from decades ago – but they’re happening now, on the streets of Northern Ireland, in 2021.

A car burns on the streets of Belfast, surrounded by police riot vans, at night in a residential area

Despite condemnation from politicians in Belfast, Dublin and London, and even Washington DC, the first break in violence in the Northern Irish capital came on Saturday night, following the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Friday.

The Duke’s death seems to have cooled tensions – for now.

Colm McGlone, Head of Production at, was on the ground covering the rioting on Friday night in Belfast.

A hooded man throws an unseen item down the road toward police, he wears a medical face mask and the shops behind him are shuttered

“You know something’s going on because, if there are police jeeps and police with shields, then there’s normally something happening there,” he said.

McGlone was injured on the scene of the riots after a brick ricocheted onto his leg.

“You’re standing there, there’s nearly 30 cops in a row with a load of Land Rovers, there’s screaming going on, there are bottles, bricks, everything being thrown.”

A molotov cocktail burns at the feet of a PSNI riot officer

Like other witnesses to the violence, he said that many of the rioters were young people.

“It’s known there are these Facebook groups run by older lads, but they’re putting up ‘come and defend your community'”, he said.

“And once you get the kids started, you don’t really need to egg them on too much – it feels like a game once you’re in it.

Two men taunt police officers in their riot vans, spreading their arms wide above their heads, a flag bearing the Red Hand of Ulster flies in the background

“Sometimes, when someone throws a stone from way back you, hear someone say ‘yeah!’ – it’s as if someone’s scored a goal.”

The fact that many of the protestors are young is significant, most are too young to have any memory of the Troubles, but the root cause for them is old and familiar.

A Biffa bin burns behind a line of riot vans in Belfast

The violence, which began in Derry at the end of March, is believed to be predominantly carried out by young people in loyalist areas.

Loyalists are those that feel strongly Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom, while republicans believe Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland.

It is those tensions that formed the backdrop to the violence that raged decades ago, which was largely brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

A line of police dogs in a Belfast street

However, lingering tensions between Northern Ireland’s loyalist community and the British government have been inflamed after the creation of a trade border between it and the rest of the United Kingdom down the Irish Sea, which requires goods being brought across to either island to be checked upon arrival.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that this would not happen during Brexit negotiations, but happen it did.

Men in balaclavas and tracksuits crouch don next to a burning car

This, members of the loyalist community say, is tantamount to a physical border between two nations which are part of the union, and has provoked outrage and allegations of betrayal aimed at those in Westminster.

At its core, loyalists claim this new trading arrangement is a threat to their Britishness.

Tensions have also been exacerbated after over 20 Sinn Féin politicians attended a republican funeral, flouting Covid-19 social distancing restrictions in the process, but did not face criminal charges.

A car burns in Belfast

At the height of the violence on Friday evening, McGlone saw rioters hijacking a car and setting it alight.

“There was a car in the street and they broke into it, took the hand break off, lit it on fire and just pushed it towards the cops.”

McGlone says he saw several police officers get injured over the course of the evening.

“Maybe two or three cops being led away from the line and put into the back of a Land Rover because they got injured or stunned.”

Despite initial speculation that loyalist extremists might be operating behind the scenes, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has ruled out the involvement of loyalist groups in orchestrating the violence.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s latest assessment came after the release of a statement by an umbrella group representing several loyalist groups denying their involvement and seeking an end to the violence.