The battle of Tiger’s Bay, a gritty Protestant housing estate in Belfast, commenced under the gaze of Union flags draped from residents’ windows demonstrating unswerving loyalty to Great Britain and the Queen.
Prince Philip’s death had just been announced and the community forum of Tiger’s Bay had posted his picture with a message that called for peace during the days of mourning.
I saw that hope dashed within hours when, out on the streets that night, a burning car laced with fireworks rolled towards me, gathering speed as it was pushed down a slope by masked rioters.
I ran to safety behind a line of police officers with riot shields as the hijacked car exploded in a blaze of light 30 yards away. Clouds of acrid smoke and firework sulphur made my eyes water while some of the policemen started to cough.
Surreally, the doomed vehicle’s alarm began bleeping forlornly, before flames transformed it into a metal carcass.
I saw that hope dashed within hours when, out on the streets that night, a burning car laced with fireworks rolled towards me, gathering speed as it was pushed down a slope by masked rioters in Belfast
The rioters didn’t stop there. They hurled bricks torn from walls, pavement stones and even a shed door, its latches still intact, at the police line.
A hooded figure ran behind a flaming wheelie bin and shoved it our way.
The police ordered me back to the estate’s edge, where I watched from a burned-down bus shelter, one of the first casualties of the six-hour Tiger’s Bay riot.
When the officer in charge shouted ‘Forward’, they marched towards the loyalist agitators, pushing them back towards their homes. The manoeuvre stopped a confrontation with their opponents from the Catholic community of New Lodge who were out on the streets nearby.
Ironically, I witnessed this ugly scene on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the 1998 peace agreement designed to end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland forever.
The rioters didn’t stop there. They hurled bricks torn from walls, pavement stones and even a shed door, its latches still intact, at the police line
For 30 years, this corner of the UK played host to a bitter religious civil war called – in an understatement – the Troubles. Now the violence has returned.
Night after night since Easter, young Protestant Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, have fought against equally youthful Catholic nationalists, who dream of a united Ireland.
In the middle are police, firing plastic bullets and deploying water cannons – banned in mainland Britain and brought out for the first time in six years last Thursday night – as they try to keep control.
TV and internet footage of the unrest have flashed across the world, prompting both Boris Johnson and President Joe Biden to appeal for calm.
A spokesman for the grass-roots Police Federation said the ‘shocking scenes’ have set Northern Ireland back years to a time everyone hoped had been consigned to history, while a senior police officer told a Belfast press conference that he didn’t rule out guns being carried on the streets by rioters if the urban warfare continues this summer.
The PSNI use a water cannon on the Springfield road, during further unrest in Belfast on April 8
Violence flared up in Belfast again tonight as youths hurled petrol bombs at police officers in what has been described as the worst riots ‘in years
So exactly why has violence erupted here again? A key trigger was the funeral last June of an notorious IRA kingpin, Bobby Storey, at the height of the Covid lockdown when mass gatherings were banned in Northern Ireland.
Last month after considering police evidence, the Public Prosecution Service announced no one would be punished in connection with the funeral parade.
This led to furious allegations from Protestants that the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) is biased in favour of Catholics and sparked the protests that escalated to violence. But Brexit is a factor, too.
Many Protestants want the new trade border created in the Irish Sea (as a means of avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which remains in the EU) scrapped.
They say it cuts Northern Ireland adrift from the UK and threatens their identity as loyalists to Britain and the Crown. Nationalists disagree. Yet, are a funeral and a border squabble really behind the return to sectarian violence? Or has a religious apartheid here never really disappeared?
Today it’s the youngsters of both communities who are on the frontline and a recent UN report has predicted that they, the so-called ‘Peace Agreement Generation’, are likely to be the next threat to harmony.
A fire burns in front of police vehicles in Belfast. Protests have been continuing in the city between officers and youths
Fireworks explode on police vehicles after being fired at police officers during clashes with nationalist youths in the Springfield Road
They have no memory of the Troubles, nor have they had the ‘horrors of war’ explained to them. Instead, the Troubles have been romanticised by the older generation who lived through them, making some of these youngsters susceptible to taking up arms in sectarian conflict all over again. Certainly, many of the rioters I saw at Tiger’s Bay were very young, and three 14-year-old boys have been arrested for their part in that night’s events.
But while the Troubles may be glamourised in modern Northern Ireland, so, too, is peace.
This weekend – and despite the lockdown – I saw a group of Chinese tourists climbing into a taxi for a £59 tour of the 100 or so peace walls which dot the city.
One such 20ft wall of brick, metal and wire went up on the day the peace agreement was signed in 1998 and is within spitting distance of the riots breaking out now. On one side live Protestant children. On the other – just a few yards away – live young Catholics.
A car is seen burning in Belfast amid the unrest. Yesterday, details were revealed of how Facebook and other social media platforms have been used by agitators
They may never meet until they are old enough to work: 93 per cent of state schools and many colleges and universities remain segregated by religion.
Not far from Belfast city centre, I talk to a taxi driver waiting for a fare. He is from Somalia and a Muslim and has lived in Belfast for 30 years. What he says is chilling: ‘My religion means I take no sides over who is Protestant and Catholic. I have asked youngsters at work to come to my house – I live in a Protestant area – for a meal with my family. When the Catholics hear my postcode, they always refuse. They say “I can’t go there, my people won’t let me”. It happens time and again.’
He tells me about the Albert Bridge which spans Belfast’s River Lagan. ‘The Catholics stay on the left pavement, the Protestants on the right,’ he explains. ‘The peace walls should be taken down. They are not for peace. If you put up a barrier between people and, particularly children, they cannot become friends. They are enemies for life.’
This week, a foreign TV crew filming the riots stopped a teenage Protestant boy and asked him why he was there. Was it about the sea border after Brexit?
The boy looked bewildered, before answering: ‘They [Catholics] get more than us.’
If the TV crew had posed the same question to a Catholic youngster, the chances are the response – about Protestants – would have been exactly the same. And that is a threat to any real peace in Northern Ireland.
More fireworks are seen exploding by the closed peace gate in Lanark Way in West Belfast. Young people were being lured into joining the rioting through social media