Few rioting youths understand NI protocol, but fear filters down

Lockdown, transgenerational trauma and austerity contributing to violence, locals say

Few of the 14 year olds involved in rioting in Northern Ireland know much about the Northern Ireland Protocol or the details surrounding last year's funeral of IRA member Bobby Storey, says Derry Cllr Darren Guy.

None of that, however, means that the resentment over Brexit arrangements and the feared direction of travel towards a united Ireland already felt widely in the loyalist community does not filter down to them.

"I am surprised that it turned to violence, but I am not surprised at people's anger at the moment," says Guy, a second-generation Ulster Unionist Party councillor representing the Waterside area of Derry.

However, the impact of a year of lockdown has contributed significantly too, as schools, youth centres and sports facilities have been closed, and there has been long-term economic deprivation and a failure of political leadership.


“I’m not blaming lockdown, the rioting was wrong in any case. But because of lockdown, these youth services buildings can’t be used. We need to get services running again, keep kids’ minds occupied. Keep them off the streets,” he says.

Throughout the week, Guy and others on the Waterside have been out dissuading local youths from getting involved. Unlike Belfast, as of Friday morning, Derry had seen three days of quiet.

Agreeing that the causes are complex, Kenny McFarland, a community activist in Derry, says: “If anyone tells you they know what exactly is happening, they aren’t telling you the truth. It is a whole mixture of things.”

In conversation with the generation known as the “ceasefire babies”, McFarland and others have told them of their own experiences three decades ago: “We’ve been there, we’ve done it, we’ve got the T-shirt. Don’t make that mistake again, there are other ways.”

“A lot of young people haven’t had school, band, football, whatever their usual social activities are, they are bored out of their heads,” he says. “Everyone is frustrated, including myself.”

Pointing to what he calls “constant attacks” on the unionist community and the words and actions of political parties in London, Belfast and Dublin, McFarland criticises unionist politicians of all ilks. Just one in 10 of his neighbours think they do anything useful.


In Belfast, Maddy McDermott runs a mental health and counselling service on the Shankill Road, which has seen the worst of the violence. Throughout the week, the service has remained open, despite the difficulties.

McDermott says the last year has been hard: “Isolation, the use of drugs, young people disengaging from education, who have had their sporting, football, boxing all taken away.

“All of that energy, frustration, anger – it has to go somewhere. It has been frightening to go from zero to 100 in a split second,” she says of the recent violence. “Some of these children have transgenerational trauma. Maybe there’s been a grandfather who was blown up by the IRA, there was maybe another that was shot by the UVF.”

Politicians, McDermott says, have done nothing for places such as the Shankill struggling with deprivation: “They are failing their communities. Especially with the Protestant areas, the DUP namely. They have lost a lot of respect and it’s showing.”

Like others, Gerry Carroll, a People Before Profit MLA for west Belfast, has been on the streets trying to calm tensions: "It's quite difficult because of tensions being high and people being riled up."

The Shankill and places like it need investment, not violence, he says: “Over the last year working-class communities have been hit hardest by Covid. So the last thing we need is people facing each other in a hostile way.”

After speaking with young people on the Springfield Road on Wednesday night, he says many wanted to defend their community: “That is understandable when they see a demonstration [designed] to provoke.”

However, Northern Ireland’s deprived need to come together, not split further apart: “It’s a bit hard to speak to people when there are petrol bombs flying, but it’s a message we want to get across.”

In southeast Belfast, Green Party councillor and community worker Brian Smyth says Stormont politicians are now saying the right things, but tempers "have been ratcheting things up for months".

Even compared with his generation, he says, today’s youth in Northern Ireland are worse off: “You have kids who are 18, 19, all they have known is austerity, they may not know what ‘austerity’ is , but that’s all they’ve known.”

Now those same young people are being “played” by paramilitaries, he says: “They are being coerced, they are being groomed. We have to get to work together to stop people dying, because that is where this is going.”