The North: ‘Riots stopped because Prince Andrew or Philip or something – he’s dead’

Community workers say riots sparked by unionism’s loss of control and the manipulation of working-class youths not politics

The first Kyle knew was when he got a text from his mate a couple of days before Easter telling him there were to be riots on the Saturday night. There was a list of places and times and Kyle, who is 17, understood that it had been circulated by paramilitaries. His mate asked him to share it and he did.

Kyle said he wasn't brought up political. "But the people I run about with I'd hear them going on about Protestanty sort of stuff, you know, Protestants hate Catholics, Catholics hate Protestants, Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other." He lives in a big suburban housing estate in Rathcoole on the northern shore of Belfast Lough.

Almost 100 police officers were injured during 2021's Easter riots, which happened in Belfast, Derry, Coleraine and Carrickfergus, with a few skirmishes in other towns. Most of the trouble took place in predominantly unionist working-class areas. Some of the riots were across interfaces and involved exchanges with nationalists. Others were confrontations between loyalists and the PSNI. There were several fights when householders struggled to stop teenagers commandeering their wheelie bins.

Kyle went along to Cloughfern roundabout, the location given in Newtownabbey. "There were people there in balaclavas and black hoods and there were cars speeding about, trying to make it look like they were hijacked but they weren't," he said. "They were just trying to get the police in. So then the Paddy Wagons arrived."


A BBC journalist recorded the moment when the fleet of white PSNI landrovers swept in. A man can be heard shouting, “Here we go – party time” to whoops and cheers.

"They were setting fire to cars and throwing petrol bombs and stuff," said Kyle. "My mate got anxious. He's got anxiety. He went home. I stood and watched it. A lot of people had been drinking and they went home and watched the Carl Frampton fight, and then came back to see the riot. I went to my mate's house and we had a beer. I was told someone had gone on fire while I was away."

Frampton, from Tigers Bay in North Belfast, just a few miles in towards the city centre from Newtownabbey, has already held two world titles but was defeated in the fighting for the world super featherweight title in Dubai.

Since many of the rioters were filming as they pelted the police with missiles, the incident of the burning man was widely shared. He appeared to have been in the middle of throwing a petrol bomb when someone else behind him threw one which set him alight.

'I was told the commander was there, sitting up at the wall telling people what to do'

Kyle went back on Sunday night. “There were people there from Carrickfergus, Carryduff and other places. One guy I know had walked for 40 minutes and then all he did was run around the landrovers for the fun of it with the police chasing him. The ones there that night were far younger,” he said. “A lot of them were only 14 or 15. I know a few of them – a couple of them are on bail for drugs and stuff.”

He returned last Tuesday. “I was drunk. I brought a box of empty bottles down, and other people threw them.” He said his mate had asked him to bring the bottles.

“The men who were there were definitely 100 per cent paramilitaries,” he said. “I was told the commander was there, sitting up at the wall telling people what to do. I was told the politicians wanted the top policeman to resign, but I don’t know why or anything.”

Kyle said he did not know why he got involved. “When I’m drunk, stuff happens,” he said. “I’ve nothing against the police. Not yet, anyway.” He was at home and back on his PlayStation earlier this week when his mother shouted up to him that the police were at the door. “Someone must have touted on me, said I put a picture up about the riots that were going to happen. I didn’t want to be classified as touting. When the police came I deleted it. They didn’t ask for my phone anyway.

“I don’t even like the paramilitaries. When I was younger a boy that was in a UDA family hated me and he used to bully me. He threw eggs at old people’s houses and blamed me. They threatened to do my knees. I told my da and he went and threatened them back. He doesn’t like them. They put him out of his house one time because he beat a guy that threatened to shoot him. It was over someone else that owed them money. That’s when we moved to where we live now.”

He said he had enjoyed his childhood but that since he was 14 all he did was sit in his room on his PlayStation. He said local paramilitaries were involved in some of the bands and had asked him to join. “My mother wouldn’t let me,” he said. “My da’s mate is in it. He runs the estate he’s in. He sells drugs. It’s all drugs now.” Kyle used “speed and weed” and said he had taken cocaine twice. It was given to him at house parties.

His parents were angry he had been at the riots. “My da told me he got lifted years ago at a riot and he got done for it and he got a record. My sister wasn’t too pleased either. She is getting married to a Catholic and they have a baby and he is being brought up mixed. They were all giving out to me. My wee brother shouted at me that I was going to go to jail and there was bad people there and they would beat me. He doesn’t usually speak to me. I think he was just concerned.”

Kyle took the view that the riots would probably start up again. “They have only stopped because of this Prince Andrew or Philip or something – he’s dead. I was told the paramilitaries were planning something big. I don’t think I will go back out. I only did it to get out of the house. I was bored.”

He is hoping to start a new job soon stacking boxes in one of the big supermarkets.

The North has had centuries of riots, and those that flared from Easter Saturday for a week were minor compared with some of the huge conflagrations that took place during, say, the early years of the phase of northern conflict known as the Troubles, that began in the early 1960s. But even small, contrived riots can be extremely dangerous.

This week marks the second anniversary of the killing of Lyra McKee who was shot when dissident republicans fired at the police in Derry in 2019 under the cover of a riot ostensibly sparked by a police raid, but which may well have been organised because a documentary crew was in town.

In 2001, 16-year-old Glen Branagh was killed during a riot across the interface between Tigers Bay and the nationalist New Lodge. His injuries were catastrophic after a blast bomb he had in his hand exploded. Last November, on Remembrance Sunday, the UDA commemorated him as a hero who had died when he picked up a device that had been thrown towards Protestant houses by republicans. This is not the story the CCTV told.

The DUP MP Ian Paisley said in Westminster on Wednesday that "the identity of Ulster is at stake". He said the Brexit protocol was to blame, with the decision not to prosecute anyone for breaches of Covid regulations at the Bobby Storey funeral "the straw that broke the camel's back". He said the violence was likely to continue, though he said he condemned it.

“I fear a continuing downward spiral unless the secretary of state takes action and the key action he could take is to invoke article 16, take control of this situation,” he said.

'Middle-class people in the town think they are so tolerant yet they write off whole working-class communities'

Lord Morrow, the DUP’s chairman, said the situation was “of equal seriousness” to the Loyalist Worker’s Strike and the Anglo Irish Agreement. These protests involved tens of thousands of people and caused major disruption. The first, in the 1970s, helped derail the Sunningdale powersharing deal; the second, in 1985, failed to halt the deal that unionists said allowed Dublin undue influence, and which led Ian Paisley senior to roar, “Never! Never! Never!” outside Belfast’s City Hall.

The Easter riots occurred in towns in which posters and graffiti have been appearing since January declaring: “Protocol equals war” and “RIP Good Friday Agreement”.

One woman in Carrickfergus, where Catholics and people in mixed relationships were intimidated and told to leave, said she resented the designation of her town as “loyalist”. “They don’t speak for everyone,” she said. However, she added that she had been shocked too by the snobbishness directed towards people in the so-called “loyalist estates” over the riots: “Middle-class people in the town think they are so tolerant yet they write off whole working-class communities, claiming they don’t know how to raise their kids.”

During one of the worst nights of trouble, masked youths ordered the driver and passengers out of a bus, which was then hijacked and burned on the Shankill Road. The DUP leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, condemned those responsible, accusing them of taking attention away from "the real law breakers" in Sinn Féin.

During a debate about the events on Thursday, Foster said her language had been “clumsy”. However, she accused republicans of waging a “cultural war on unionism” and said loyalists felt they had missed out on the gains of the peace process in terms of jobs, investment and housing.

Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan said that this perception was not supported by facts. In reality, “the majority of deprivation and disadvantage is in nationalist areas”. The DUP, UUP and TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) parties are suing the British government over the protocol, alleging it breaches the 1800 Act of Union and the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which was opposed by the DUP and the TUV.

During one of the riots across the Lanark Way peaceline, men were observed by reporters directing young loyalists, including giving instruction on how to make petrol bombs. Kevin Scott, a press photographer, was attacked from behind by men who called him a “fenian c**t”, smashed his cameras, and told him to go back to his own area. A steel security gate on which “no peace is bad, no war is good” is written was forced open. Community workers, youth workers and members of the clergy managed to defuse the confrontation, in some cases actually taking missiles out of young hands. There are credible reports that dissident republicans were involved in stirring up anger on the Falls Road side of the peaceline, and in the New Lodge area.

Eileen Weir is from the Shankill Road, grew up during the conflict and is one of the best-known feminist community activists in the North. She is an outreach worker at the Shankill Women’s Centre, which recently hosted President Michael D Higgins. Weir has been involved in work to defuse interface strife and feuds for many years. She blames “community propaganda” for the violence and said low-level interface trouble is constant.

'The language our political leaders are using is disgraceful and is putting people on edge'

“These young people out throwing fireworks and petrol bombs don’t know what is going on,” she said. “This is antisocial behaviour organised over Facebook and other social media.” She and others spoke of messages advertising “protests” in belligerent language, put out in the name of Edward Carson – the patriarch of unionism who raised an illegal army, the UVF, to fight Home Rule. The first World War took many of its members off to die in the Battle of the Somme instead.

Several boys spoke to The Irish Times about hearing men on mobile phones communicating with others in a way that strongly suggested they were paramilitaries.

“Young people are being manipulated,” said Weir. “The women in these communities on both sides of the interface are disgusted by it and they want it to stop. We are not going back to the way things were. We want to move forward, and so do most of the young people around here who were not involved in this.”

Work is about to begin on a new women’s centre, funded by EU Peace money, serving all local communities right next to the peaceline.

"The language our political leaders are using is disgraceful and is putting people on edge," she said. "There is no 'two-tier policing' as they claim. Nationalists were discriminated against in the past so of course they had to catch up in terms of equality. But this is about the DUP losing votes to Alliance, People Before Profit, the Greens and the SDLP, and not knowing what to do about it."

She said it was more a class issue than an “Orange and Green” one. “You won’t see kids on the Malone Road out rioting,” she said. “That’s because they have prospects. These areas we are in have been badly let down. Our young people need an education system that works for them and they need jobs. There has to be a strategy.”

Joel Keys (19) said he only got involved in a riot on the Sandy Row because he was walking past and saw a 13-year-old friend who had "got mixed up in it". He said he followed the child and contacted the boy's parents. Joel was detained himself but has so far not been charged. "I didn't do anything," he said. "But I do understand the ones that did get involved. Rioting is a way to vent your frustration. It is exciting."

He is annoyed that the paramilitaries will be able to access newly announced funds for building community cohesion. He hopes to be a politician in the future and has taken part in television debates on BBC NI with young republicans and others. He believes that nationalists and republicans have better community cohesion and better leaders than unionists, and spoke of apathy and despair in his community.

'...These young lads just wanted to fight the police and act the big man. What's the point?'

“Over the past few years there has definitely been perceived losses,” he said. “The flags that were taken down, the Irish language Act that has been promised, and now the border in the sea, and maybe a Border poll. I don’t have a problem myself so long as things are done democratically.”

The Monkstown Boxing Club is one of many youth facilities that opened last weekend to provide constructive diversion for young people at risk of rioting. One of the workers, Daryl Clarke. said a lot of the trouble was down to lockdown boredom. He is from the estate in Carrickfergus where there were riots. “It is pretty bad there. There are drug dealers and paramilitary commanders better known than local politicians,” he said. “Boxing saved my life. During the flags protests in 2012, a lot of my friends got criminal records. I was busy boxing in the New Lodge.”

He has a slew of medals and recently won the Ulster League Championship at the Ulster Hall, where he was named boxer of the tournament. “We do our best to give the kids here a positive outlook. Some of them come from backgrounds in which there are a lot of problems.”

Dee Dee Kerr did not riot. The boxing club helped him get back on his feet after he almost dropped out of school a few years ago. “I grew up in a very heavy area where if you wanted to be a policeman you were hated. These young lads just wanted to fight the police and act the big man. What’s the point? All they are doing is terrorising people and getting themselves a bad name. I’m too smart for that.” He spent the week preparing for his A-levels.

Carl Frampton spoke at an anti-sectarianism online rally on Thursday night. He said he grew up next to the interface and had been excited by riots and had taken part in them when he was young. “People have been stirring the pot again, and young people are being manipulated,” he said. “It just made me overwhelmingly sad.”

In Derry, community worker and bands forum chairman Kenny McFarland said the reluctance of the majority nationalist council to fund centenary celebrations had upset Protestants.

Catherine Pollock is from Tullyally, where there were several incidents, though she no longer lives there. "Unionism is losing power and control. It needs leaders who have the skill to say, look, we have cards to play and if we are sensible we can save this place. Instead, Arlene said if there was a united Ireland she'd leave.

“People are left feeling unappeased but it is not a definite thing. It is more a kind of grief or sense they have lost something intangible. It is about shattered dreams.”

Susan McKay’s latest book, Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, is published by Blackstaff Press on May 20th

Susan McKay

Susan McKay, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a journalist and author. Her books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground