The attack in the Springfield Road area followed a night of rioting by nationalists and pro-British loyalists nearby in the Northern Ireland city on Wednesday that was condemned by the British and Irish governments and local political leaders.

Fireworks explode on police vehicles after being fired at police officers during clashes with nationalist youths in the Springfield Road area of Belfast on April 8, 2021 as disorder continued in the Northern Ireland capital following days of mainly loyalist violence.
Fireworks explode on police vehicles after being fired at police officers during clashes with nationalist youths in the Springfield Road area of Belfast on April 8, 2021 as disorder continued in the Northern Ireland capital following days of mainly loyalist violence. (AFP)

Rioters have waged a running battle with police once again in Belfast – tossing petrol bombs, setting fires and dodging jets from water cannon as a week of unrest showed no sign of letting up.

Hundreds of boys and young men gathered from early evening in a western neighbourhood in the Northern Ireland capital, which has been riven by violence over Brexit and domestic politics.

Masked and in hooded tops, they hurled rocks, bricks and glass bottles at police barricades where riot officers formed ranks with armoured Land Rovers.

Petrol bombs burst into flames in the street and fireworks were aimed into police formations, exploding and smothering their lines in thick smoke.

Behind riot shields and with batons drawn, police drove back the surging crowds late into Thursday night, as locals peered out of their windows to witness the spectacle.

READ MORE: Northern Ireland government to meet for briefing on escalating violence

When one group tried to push a vandalised car into the police barricades, a lumbering water cannon forced them away with powerful spraying jets.

A police loudhailer warned crowds to disperse or face arrest. 

"Force may be used," the female voice rang out.

Northern Ireland was the site of "The Troubles" sectarian conflict, which wound down in 1998 – but Brexit has been partially blamed for igniting old tensions.

The unrest started last week in the pro-UK unionist community, where tensions are high because of new post-Brexit rules some feel are dividing the region from Britain.

But the pro-Ireland nationalist community has begun to respond in scenes like those of Thursday night.

Nationalist and unionist communities in Belfast are often separated by towering "peace walls" to guard against projectiles.

On Wednesday there were ugly scenes when warring groups from unionist and nationalist communities faced off at a gate in the peace wall between their neighbourhoods.

The doors are etched with a slogan reading: "There was never a good war or a bad peace."

But the gates were pried open and rioters traded missiles in vicious confrontations.

Spiralling situation 

"It's deep rooted, it's not just about Brexit although Brexit has done something as well obviously," Belfast native Fiona McMahon told AFP earlier on Thursday.

"We have been scuppered big time," she said, voicing the sense of exasperation many here feel over Britain's split from the EU.

The rising unrest has caused a political crisis in Northern Ireland, with the regional assembly recalled to address the violence on Thursday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin and US President Joe Biden have all called for calm.

READ MORE: EU adopts legal course against UK over Brexit deal delays

Meanwhile police have pleaded to those with "influence" in the community to hold back the crowds from participating in riots.

On Thursday dozens of older men and women stood at the gates where violence had flared the previous night and refused to let rioters approach.

A small number of men dismantled a fire being started and blocked others approaching the gate with projectiles.

Two amongst the crowd told AFP they were concerned figures from the surrounding community – a sign that those who still remember "The Troubles" are unwilling to let the region slide back into its dark past.

READ MORE: Sinn Fein’s election victory in Ireland is a ‘seismic shift’

Politicians divided, streets beyond control

Despite the united message, Northern Ireland's politicians are deeply divided, and events on the street are in many cases beyond their control.

As many predicted it would, the situation has been destabilised by Britain’s departure from the EU – after almost 50 years of membership – that became final on December 31.

A post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal has imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The arrangement was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland because an open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process built.

But unionists say the new checks amount to the creation of a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – something they fear undermines the region’s place in the United Kingdom.

The latest disturbances followed unrest over the long Easter weekend in pro-British unionist areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, also known as Derry, that saw cars set on fire and debris and gasoline bombs hurled at police officers.

Outlawed paramilitary groups blamed

Some politicians and police have accused outlawed paramilitary groups – which remain a force in working class communities – of inciting young people to cause mayhem. They expressed outrage that a new generation was being exposed to, and pulled into, violence.

Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long, from the centrist Alliance Party, said she was horrified to watch video of adults “standing by cheering and goading and encouraging young people on as they wreaked havoc in their own community.”

“This is nothing short of child abuse,” she said.

Both Britain and the EU have expressed concerns about how the Brexit agreement is working, and the Democratic Unionist Party wants it scrapped. But any long-term solution will require political commitment that appears in short supply. Britain and the EU are squabbling over the new trade arrangements and show little of the goodwill needed to make their new relationship work.

Sinn Fein and the DUP have blamed one another for the deteriorating situation.

Katy Hayward, a politics professor at Queen's University Belfast and senior fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said unionists felt that “Northern Ireland’s place is under threat in the union, and they feel betrayed by London.”

Unionists are also angry at a police decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander in June. The funeral of Bobby Storey drew a large crowd, despite coronavirus rules barring mass gatherings.

The main unionist parties have demanded the resignation of Northern Ireland’s police chief over the controversy, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.

“You have a very fizzy political atmosphere in which those who are trying to urge for calm and restraint are sort of undermined,” Hayward said. “It’s really easy to see how it could get worse."

Source: AP