On Lanark Way – a nondescript road which runs from the loyalist Shankill to nationalist Springfield roads - hundreds of people gathered again on Thursday night.
There was no obvious protest – no banners, no placards, no political slogans being shouted.
Nor was there any likelihood of the gathering being peaceful. Most of those who would later lead the rioting were dressed entirely in black, making it harder for the police to identify individuals, and many faces were covered to an extent that went beyond the most cautious anti-covid measures. At least one of the men giving directions was wearing blue surgical gloves.
As darkness began to fall, some of the youths brought forward an old plastic oil tank and large industrial bins in which rubbish was burnt in the middle of the road, 150 yards away from a line of armoured police vehicles.
Beers were drunk, cigarettes and cannabis were smoked. After months of lockdown, there was obvious excitement. Even gathering in a large crowd is now novel; doing so in contravention of police warnings to disperse – relayed frequently over a loudspeaker – was exhilarating to some of those present.
The police warnings became more frequent and more ominous. “This is a police message. The crowd should disperse immediately as force is about to be used on violent individuals” became terse: “Impact rounds will be fired”.
Swathes of the crowd jeered, confident that police restraint meant that none of them would be in danger unless caught in an act of violence. Ultimately, no impact rounds – the latest term for rubber or plastic bullets – seemed to be fired at that spot on Thursday night.
In full view of the crowd – seemingly based on the understanding that they were sympathetic – preparations were made to attack police lines. An older youth in a balaclava gave instruction to children who were aged around 12, if even that old. Some were told to gather empty beer bottles. Others were sent for rags.
A can of petrol was produced and the children were shown how a petrol bomb is made. With authority, the youth in the balaclva directed where the rioters should take their missiles and what to do. “Play them at their own game,” he said, directing them to the main road.
The group set off through side-streets in an attempt to outflank the police barrier.
Half an hour earlier, in one of the many long periods of boredom between bursts of excitement, one of those children gently stroked a grey terrier. Not only was he born after the Good Friday Agreement, but he was almost certainly born after 2007 when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness beamingly entered powersharing.
Later, after police had warned that ‘impact rounds’ would be fired, one of the children appeared uneasy. Older girls told him caustically “sure it’s only rubber”.
In fact, the PSNI’s manual for using the weapon system refers to “the potential for lethal consequences”. The fact that the document goes on to say that “every effort should be made to ensure that children or members of other vulnerable groups are not placed at risk” might imply that the adults sending children forward are being particularly cunning.
Eventually the bricks and fireworks being thrown at the police were followed by petrol bombs. Voices in the crowd urged on those further forward engaging in criminality. One man had to repeatedly shout for people to come forward; there was visible reluctance from some of those present.
Eventually, police rushed towards the rioters and arrested at least one person before the hours of disorder gradually petered out. By contrast to the previous evening, when a bus was burnt out a few yards away, this was a quiet night, yet it destroyed not only the physical fabric of the area, but saw adults put children in life-threatening situations.
In four hours, I saw no one attempting to stop any of the rioting. If paramilitaries did not organise this, as they claim, that suggests they either didn’t want to stop it, or were impotent even in the heart of their territory.
Will any of this change the Irish Sea border? On the one hand, as a shrewd rioter said this week to The Guardian, the world is paying attention to this issue because of the violence.
But there is still not the slightest hint that the government or the EU are prepared to remove the protocol.
Regardless of whether that happens, these scenes are damaging for the unionist ideology these people espouse.
This was anarchic; whatever the initial cause, violence had here become an end in itself. There was no political message to be discerned beyond rage.
In Northern Ireland’s centenary year, that is evidence of failure, not success.
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