Northern Ireland: how to understand the influence of paramilitary groups

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Bakke, Kristin M. & Kit Rickard (2021) Northern Ireland: how to understand the influence of paramilitary groups, The Conversation. 12 April.

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Violent protests have been flaring up across Northern Ireland since the end of March. They began in loyalist areas, with young people attacking members of the police. The fragile peace was threatened further when, on April 7, the riots turned into sectarian clashes at one of Belfast’s interfaces, or so-called “peace walls”, separating the loyalist Shankill Road and nationalist Springfield Road.

The reasons for the current riots are complex. Loyalist discontent with the consequences of Brexit, long-term deprivation and disillusionment with governments both in Belfast and London, and low confidence in the police have all played a part.

Observers have also been quick to point to the influence of paramilitaries with criminal motives. The accusation is that they are egging on young people and encouraging them to lash out at police. The police have appealed to “those in our community with influence” to condemn the violence, and politicians have more directly called on the loyalist paramilitary groups to do the same. It’s not clear if the riots were orchestrated or erupted spontaneously, but they have been concentrated in areas controlled by loyalist paramilitary groups.

For those not following Northern Ireland politics, the fact that paramilitary groups still play a role at all may come as a surprise. In ongoing research, we are investigating where, how and why these groups continue to carry influence.

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