IIt is not difficult to find the next riot location in Northern Ireland. You can check Facebook or other social media platforms for locations and times. You can follow young people who visit gas stations to fill up on jerry cans. Or you can accompany older people who come together, phone in hand, to watch and record the show.

On Wednesday, an older woman came to Lanark Way off Shankill Road in a coat and bathrobe for what promised to be a long, cold and eventful evening. “Not long now,” one man said to no one in particular.

The future rioters were young men, many teenagers, dressed almost identically in dark fleeces and tracksuits. They made their preparations openly and methodically, even arrogantly, aware that they had an audience of several hundred people.

Some collected rocks from an adjacent landfill, forming small piles on the sidewalk and filling the smaller rocks into pockets. Others pulled pallets from a wooden pyramid – a bonfire for the summer marching season – and made a fire in the middle of the road. Tires were added, sending a black plume into a darkened sky.

The atmosphere was dizzying. Boys around 17, accompanied by younger apprentices, appeared with brown bottles, some filled with liquid. Everyone looked at the bottles.

Kevin Scott, a Belfast Telegraph photographer, was assaulted and his camera smashed.

With the street blocked and a fire burning, the White Police Land Rovers arrived, lights flashing but sirens not sounding, and the shooting began.

Stones, bottles and petrol bombs crashed into the vehicles. The spectators took their example to disperse, or return home, and leave the stage to the main performers.

Two young people boarded a Translink double-decker bus emptied of its driver and passengers. An older man appeared to guard the entrance, like a flight attendant, as they fiddled with the controls. They got out, the bus drove off and a gasoline bomb exploded inside, creating a fireball on wheels.

A vehicle that connects the city, connects people, destroyed by the children of the 1998 Good Friday accord that drew a line under the Troubles: it was a disheartening sight.

Workers clear a bus from the road
Belfast City Council workers clear the remains of a burnt-out bus on Loyalist Shankill Road on Thursday. Photograph: Paul Faith / AFP / Getty

Six nights of unrest across Northern Ireland injured 55 police officers and deepened a political crisis that encompasses policing, Brexit and the endless standoff between nationalists and trade unionists.

“Last night was on a scale we haven’t seen in Belfast or further into Northern Ireland for several years,” Deputy Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said. “We are very, very lucky that no one was seriously injured or killed last night especially given the large number of gasoline bombs thrown.

Translink said the bus driver was very shaken but physically unharmed. Ten people were arrested last week, including a 13-year-old boy.

The British and Irish governments have expressed deep concern over the return of scenes allegedly relegated to history. The region’s power-sharing official in Stormont held an emergency meeting with Simon Byrne, the police chief. In the Assembly Hall, politicians from all parties condemned the violence. Brandon Lewis, the secretary of Northern Ireland, has planned to meet with religious, community and political leaders.

Three policemen patrol on foot
Northern Ireland Police Service officers patrol the Cloughfern area of ​​Newtownabbey. Photograph: Paul McErlane / The Observer

But there have been reports that loyalists are planning more protests this weekend. And there was no sign of easing between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to trace an end to the crisis.

In some ways, things are not as bad as they seem. The protests were small, usually involving only a few dozen people. The main loyalist paramilitary groups did not throw their weight behind the protests. Stormont’s assembly and executive are still functioning and giving primacy to peaceful and constitutional politics. Nobody died.

But the underlying currents causing the unrest are deep and turbulent.

“We are second-class citizens. Protestants are second-class citizens, it’s not fair, ”said Jay, a 16-year-old, as his friends prepared to confront the police.

They repeated the grievances as a mantra: second-class citizens, harassed by the police, abandoned by the Unionist parties, betrayed by the government and, worst of all, beaten by the nationalists.

From this perspective, the nationalists were able to flout the pandemic rules in a huge funeral for Bobby Storey, an IRA commander, last summer because the police are now biased against Sinn Féin; the DUP turned around and let Boris Johnson weaken Northern Ireland’s link with the UK to strike a Brexit deal; loyalty has been ignored and trampled on and the only way to attract attention, to retaliate, is to wreak havoc.

“You weren’t there until we started lighting fires,” said one youth, locating a journalist’s notebook.

Some analysts believe the DUP demanded the resignation of the police chief over Storey’s funeral police to stir up controversy and deflect loyalists’ anger over the party’s role in creating the border with the Irish Sea .

“If they’re in a tough spot, they stoke union insecurity, give loyalist paramilitaries a longer leash and sit and watch as the country ignites,” Tom Collins written in the Irish News, a Belfast daily that he used to edit.

The Lanark Way Peace Gates, which separate the Springfield Catholic Nationalist Highway from the Shankill Protestant Highway.
The Lanark Way Peace Gates are closed Wednesday. The gates separate the Springfield Catholic Nationalist Highway from the Shankill Protestant Highway. Photograph: Paul McErlane / The Observer

Middle-aged men hovered amid some riots, raising doubts that elements of loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defense Association were orchestrating events. It could be letting the kids let off steam, strengthening the resolve of union leaders, punishing the police for a recent wave of arrests and drug busts, or all of the above.

The irony is that in Northern Ireland’s centenary year, it is trade unionists and loyalists, not nationalists or Republicans, who seek to highlight the region’s shortcomings and show that this part of the UK, after Brexit, is not working.

In Belfast on Wednesday evening, however, some nationalists were happy to help them defend their cause. During the day, they had been monitoring loyalist social media posts regarding the Lanark Way protest, which was set to start at 5 p.m. They gathered on Springfield Road on the other side of the so-called Peace Wall and threw stones and bottles at the Loyalist side.

A barrage of stone, glass and flaming gasoline came in response, a sectarian air battle strewn with sectarian insults. One of the gates caught fire and was passed through, with intruders knocking briefly into enemy territory. For a moment it looked like 1969, the dawn of unrest, when crowds burned houses down, but the skirmish ended without serious injury.

“It’s very disheartening,” Cailin McCaffery, 25, a Springhill Road side graduate researcher, said as smoke coiled over the Shankill. “The PUL [Protestant Unionist Loyalist] the community destroys its own community.

Northern Ireland had come a long way since the Good Friday deal, for example growing community support for LGBT rights, but there were Catholic teens drawn into a tribal battle with Protestant teens living above the wall. , McCaffery said. “The fear is that the disruptions will get worse. We don’t want to relive what our parents went through.

On Thursday morning, calm and a sense of normalcy returned to Shankill Road, with traffic rolling past the scorched hulk of the double decker. The wheels were still smoking.