Northern Ireland youth coerced into violent acts
Nationalists and loyalists clash at Lanark Way in west Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

BELFAST, Northern Ireland—The town of Carrickfergus, along with four other Union Loyalist towns and cities, has been beset with violence over the past weeks casting further doubts the current political stability in Northern Ireland will last much longer.

More troubling, however, is the involvement of youth, as young as 12-years-old, being forced into the violence, coerced into despicable deeds by adults with sinister motives.

Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma said those children were often the victims of gangs linked to sectarian paramilitary outfits still harboring past political grievances.

“This is criminal exploitation and coercion by adults of vulnerable and at-risk children and young people and, these adults have to be held accountable and stopped,” she said to BBC Radio 4.

“Enough is enough. With the first petrol bomb or stone thrown it is criminal actors trying to take control, and what we need is a calm narrative from our politicians. We need them to be seen, to be supporting our community workers on the ground. These young people are still there. They are still living in our segregated (Catholic and Protestant) community.”

Yiasouma continued: What we have is criminals controlling or coercing young people to deal drugs, to take part in criminal activities and in that I would include rioting in the streets.”

Naomi Long, the justice minister for Northern Ireland, said she felt “Ill” watching footage showing adults standing by cheering and goading and encouraging young people on as they wreaked havoc in their community.

And at the center of this current violence is UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, past political grievances, and police crackdowns on paramilitary gangs operating in loyalist neighborhoods.

The post-Brexit betrayal felt by Northern Ireland is not hard to understand. Despite the government’s promise that there would be no disruption to trade between Northern Ireland and the UK after Brexit, new checks on food and other goods have caused disruptions and shortages.

Why? Because after Brexit, Northern Ireland continues to follow many European Union rules, those governing food and trade, meaning no regulatory border between the Republic of Ireland and North Ireland—a big sticking point during Brexit negotiations. But in essence, it has created a “sea border” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“They promised people unfettered access, which is not the case. And they denied the existence of borders, even as those borders were being erected. I think that that dishonesty and the lack of clarity around these issues have contributed to a sense of anger in parts of our community,” said Long.

“We have to recognize, and this is fundamental, that when we decided that Brexit was the way forward, and when we choose a particularly hard Brexit, that there would be consequences. And those consequences would be felt most acutely in Northern Ireland, where there is some land border.”

A modern betrayal cloaked within a history of violence

The Loyalist Communities Council, founded in 2015 and representing the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), factions of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the Red Hand Commando, released a statement denying any involvement of any of their associated organizations in the recent violence.

“The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental human right but we have made clear in all our public statements that any actions taken by the Loyalist community should be entirely peaceful. We again place on record our absolute determination to remove the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country that has been imposed on us by the NI Protocol,” read the LCC statement.

“In the coming days we urge all Unionists and Loyalists to remain vigilant to the dangers of fake and anonymous social media accounts, and we urge our people not to get drawn into violent confrontations.

“The LCC is seeking an end to all violence and to solve the underlying concerns of the Loyalist and Unionist communities whether that is due to the imposition of the Protocol, or the clear feelings of inequality in how our communities are policed and how justice is administered.”

Of course, the LCC cannot control the actions of rogue factions under a similar banner.

And in County Antrim, where Carrickfergus sits, the South East Antrim Ulster Defence Association (UDA), one of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary gangs, uses Brexit to retaliate against the Northern Ireland Police Service following several high-profile crackdowns of their criminal operations. The gang is an independent faction of the official UDA.

The UDA was formed in 1971 from a collection of Union Loyalist vigilante groups during the height of “the troubles” and aimed to protect unionist communities from attacks by republican paramilitary outfits, but under the cover name of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) went on to kill hundreds of people.

In 1992, the UDA was declared illegal, and with the end of the troubles began to splinter.

In the past days, 10 individuals are in police custody due to rioting, while over 90 PSNI officers have been injured.

On Monday, April 12, the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) penned an open letter calling for politicians to treat Northern Ireland’s fragile peace with care. They emphasized the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and called on the Northern Ireland executive to make a joint approach to the UK government and EU regarding challenges posed by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“We also must face the difficult questions about who pays the price for our failings. In the past week, we have seen people afraid to leave their homes, others at risk of violence as they go about their work, and young people feeling that they have no stake in society or hope for the future,” read part of the joint letter.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.