Later this month will be the second anniversary of the death of Belfast journalist Lyra McKee. The 29-year-old was shot dead during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry. Today, a mural stands in her home city as a tribute. Just a ten-minute walk from the mural brings you to the peace wall dividing Belfast communities and the epicentre of recent violent disturbances in Northern Ireland, the likes of which haven’t been seen in years.

What began as protests in the loyalist areas of Derry have descended to vicious outbreaks of violence across Northern Ireland. Much of the disturbances have taken place in Belfast where a bus was highjacked and set alight and over 50 police officers have been injured. The suddenness and ferocity of the rioting has captured everyone by surprise, but what caused it and why are young people front and centre in the unfortunate scenes?

It is impossible to attribute the violence to one particular cause. Some unionist politicians have said they are the result of the recent decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin leaders for breaching COVID-19 regulations at the funeral of former IRA intelligence chief, Bobby Storey, last June. Senior party figures like deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill and party President Mary Lou McDonald broke strict regulations when attending the funeral but tempers flared recently when the Public Prosecution Service said there would be no prosecutions.

Northern Ireland Lyra McKee memorial mural
Belfast, Northern Ireland. Lyra McKee memorial mural. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Another issue is Brexit, more specifically, the Northern Ireland protocol which was included in the EU-UK Brexit deal. The protocol has created an effective trade border down the Irish Sea, much to the angst of unionists in Northern Ireland.

First Minister Arlene Foster has been very critical of the protocol saying, ‘What we have here is the internal market of a sovereign country actually being disrupted,’ adding ‘unionists are very offended by that.’ However, neither governments in Dublin nor London have expressed any desire to renegotiate the protocol.

The College Tribune spoke to Dermot Hamill, host and chief editor of Youth Voice, a politics blog and podcast based in Northern Ireland about the ongoing violence. Hamill said that ‘while the current political mess is a factor in the violence, I don’t believe it’s the true reason. The areas facing violence are those that are the most impoverished, most deprived areas in Northern Ireland.’

Hamill notes the control that paramilitaries and criminal gangs have in these areas. He says, ‘these gangs have stirred up tension and forced young impressionable men to go out and wreak havoc.’ While tensions over the protocol and the Bobby Storey funeral have a part to play, he believes they ‘have been used as an excuse to riot and disrupt the peace.’

To help alleviate the situation Hamill said that Northern Ireland politicians need to do two things. Firstly, he argued that they need to ‘start listening to working-class communities, to actually listen to the concerns of real people and to hear the voices of working-class loyalists and republicans.’ Secondly, politicians need to tone down their rhetoric. Hamill claimed politicians are ‘are constantly using inflammatory and dangerous language, stirring up tensions and sewing division.’

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Moving past simple political explanations for recent violence and looking at the underlying socio-economic causes may go a long way in explaining why so many young people are at the centre of the disturbances. Many of those partaking in violence were born around or after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. They have not lived through the most violent and divisive parts of Northern Ireland’s history, yet they find themselves at the fore. It was Lyra McKee who said that this was ‘meant to be the generation that reaped the spoils of peace.’

Hamill notes that during recent events ‘we saw in Belfast that young men were being cheered on by adults,’ adding that they ‘have been manipulated by the older generation to carry out their dirty work.’ Vulnerable youths who are growing up in the more impoverished parts of the city are being used by paramilitaries and criminal gangs to engage in violence. Their ingrained unionist identity is being manipulated, culminating in recent, shameful scenes.

It is easy to become despondent when violence erupts night after night. While politicians unite in condemning the violence, their words and actions are only serving to further inflame tensions. However, Northern Ireland has seen darker days. The peace process continues to be an example to the rest of the world and these recent violent outbreaks do not take away from that. In times like these one can find hope when walking down the quiet Kent Street in central Belfast. There stands a beautiful mural to an amazing woman Lyra McKee depicting her own words, ‘It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.’

Conor Paterson – Features Editor