Belfast’s worst spate of sectarian violence in years is being stoked by criminal gangs and anonymous voices on social media, making it harder to control than the paramilitary-led clashes of Northern Ireland’s past, local leaders and security analysts told the Financial Times.

The region’s capital city endured eight nights of consecutive rioting from April 2 after peaceful loyalist protests against Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements descended into groups of youths from loyalist and republican communities trading threats and petrol bombs and clashing with police.

The protagonists were mostly teens and young adults. Their age — coupled with police claims that there was a “degree of organisation” to the activities — fuels widespread belief there are greater forces behind clashes that have garnered attention from global powers including the US some 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement brokered peace in the region.

David Campbell, head of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents the biggest loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, said his group had actually tried to suppress the first loyalist outbreaks of trouble by sending 40 members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) into Sandy Row in south Belfast as trouble flared on April 2.

“The abuse they got,” he said, describing how the young people on the street had “no respect” for the UDA figures, “and these are hard men”. “One of them (the UDA members) said to me, the only way we could stop this is if we all had baseball bats and took into them,” Campbell added.

His description of the loyalist paramilitaries’ status is at odds with general perceptions of their enduring influence, which was demonstrated again last week by the Ulster Volunteer Force’s order for Catholic families to be removed from their Carrickfergus homes.

“I’d be surprised if to a large extent they couldn’t prevent it (the riots),” said Peter Sheridan, a former assistant chief constable with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) who now heads the all-island peace-building organisation Co-Operation Ireland. He cautions, however, that a dangerous precedent would be set if loyalists used force to impose order.

The Independent Reporting Commission, a body established jointly by the UK and Irish governments to monitor progress in tackling paramilitary activity, asserted in November that “paramilitarism (republican and loyalist) remains a reality of Northern Ireland life in 2020” with “thousands of signed up members” exerting control over communities.

David Campbell, chair of the Loyalist Communities Council, said his group had tried to suppress the first outbreaks of trouble © Paul McErlane/FT

Paramilitaries on both sides of the divide have themselves long been accused of involvement in criminal activity to help fund terrorist activity, but security analysts and community activists say the gangs involved in the recent violence were outside the orbit of the traditional paramilitary structures.

It is a view shared by the PSNI, which last week said it did not believe the trouble was “sanctioned and organised” by proscribed organisations. Several others also share Campbell’s views about the behind-the-scenes role of social media and criminal elements.

Gerry Kelly, Sinn Féin’s policing spokesman in Northern Ireland, who was once jailed for membership of the IRA, said 40 to 50 young people from his community came on to the streets one night after false social media posts claimed loyalists were preparing to march into nationalist areas of west Belfast.

Social media posts from residents’ groups have also spread rumours of potential sectarian incursions. One example seen by the FT asserted residents’ “right to defend their homes from attack” and said it “fully supports this course of defensive action”.

“You can’t put it down on the nationalist side to a shadowy figure or a shadowy group,” Kelly said of the general dynamic that has driven youths on to the streets, adding that responsibility lay with “those who have agendas which are more to do with criminal elements in the area”.

Stephen Andrews, a community worker with decades of experience who was hit with rocks and bottles while trying to defuse skirmishes on the mixed Springfield Road, in Belfast, last week, described how prominent former IRA prisoner Sean “Spike” Murray yelled at him to lock the area’s peace gate so that nationalist rioters could not breach a neighbouring loyalist area.

A hangover from the troubles, peace gates are found in the fencing that separates republican and loyalist areas in Belfast city centre and are locked from early evening until early morning even in normal times, forcing pedestrians and vehicles alike to take circuitous routes to hospitals, their places of work and anywhere else they might be going after dark.

“I heard the panic in his voice,” Andrews said of Murray’s demeanour that night, describing how senior figures from the republican community were “ignored” as they tried to disband a crowd that swelled to several hundred and ultimately led to him and community volunteers being locked down at a hotel-turned-homeless centre for several hours as it was attacked by rioters.

The ad hoc and decentralised nature of the protests makes it “incredibly difficult” to police them, said James, who retired as a PSNI inspector after 30 years last summer and does not want his full name published due to his current work.

Northern Ireland’s Progressive Unionist party leader Billy Hutchinson on the Shankill Road, west Belfast © Paul McErlane/FT

He described the PSNI’s efforts to sift rumour from fact in online chatter and discern the broader narrative in an environment of such fractured control, particularly on the loyalist side, where some groups such as the South East Antrim UDA have broken away from the LCC.

A recent PSNI clampdown on the South East Antrim UDA is one of the other dynamics at play, and it is “no surprise” that their Newtownabbey heartland was the scene of recent rioting, he said.

Tom Clonan, a former Irish Army officer and security analyst, said the issues raised by Brexit and the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland had given “legitimacy” to criminal elements on both sides who use sectarian rhetoric as a cover for everything from drug smuggling to prostitution.

“Anything that disrupts normal policing is in their interests,” he said.

Declan Power, a defence analyst who lectures at the Nato school and City Colleges, said the recent splintering of loyalist elements was of particular concern. “You could have further splintering and more manifestations of irrational violence that could be very hard to predict and very hard to understand,” he said.

The Brexit-related protests that triggered the recent unrest were suspended after Prince Philip’s death last Friday. Since then the violence has been largely contained.

Campbell said he hoped London, Brussels and Dublin will use the “degree of calm” to fundamentally review the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the UK’s 2019 Brexit treaty, which has placed a customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland and angered some loyalists.

“That would hugely defuse things and very much isolate these troublemakers and show them as troublemakers,” he said. “I don’t see any sign as yet of that happening.”

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