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The Guardian view on the riots in Northern Ireland: situation dangerous | Editorial

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The rioting that took place over the long Easter weekend in Northern Ireland was relatively small-scale. But its significance should not be downplayed. On successive evenings, groups of loyalist youths threw petrol bombs, set cars alight and fought the police, injuring dozens of officers. The violence testifies to a dangerous sense of grievance in unionist communities, as the politics of Brexit play out. Though the main paramilitary groups did not, it seems, participate, neither did they use their influence to stop the riots, and in some cases allegedly encouraged them.

According to security analysts and police, criminal gangs orchestrated some of the disturbances in response to a crackdown on their activities. News that there will be no prosecutions over breaches of Covid regulations during the funeral of a leading IRA figure further fuelled resentment. But the overarching context of unionist discontent is Brexit and its consequences. A febrile atmosphere is developing on the ground, which requires the urgent attention of both Westminster and Stormont.

Not for the first time, the prime minister's penchant for winging it on matters of the utmost gravity has played its part. Boris Johnson conceded the principle of border checks between Britain and Northern Ireland to bundle his Brexit agreement with the European Union over the line. Selling that concession to the unionists was always going to be a formidable challenge, to put it mildly. But rather than confront it, his government has largely kicked the can down the road. Last month, Britain unilaterally extended the grace period before the full implementation of checks on goods going into Northern Ireland. In London, there appears to be a pusillanimous refusal to properly engage, perhaps in the hope that inertia will make the problem go away.

In Belfast, meanwhile, unionist opposition to the Brexit deal is developing into a strategy of defiant confrontation. The Democratic Unionist party is planning a legal challenge against the protocol, arguing that a border in the Irish Sea breaches the principle of consent contained in the Good Friday agreement. The DUP first minister, Arlene Foster, has said that she will work alongside with other unionists to "free" Northern Ireland from the deal. At the weekend, Ms Foster called for calm and urged young people not to get involved in disorder. But her own rhetoric, and her party's upping of the constitutional stakes, risk being used as political cover for lawless scenes such as those witnessed over the weekend.

The Alliance party has proposed that Stormont be recalled this week for an urgent debate on the violence and growing tension. That would be a welcome signal of cross-party concern, given the deteriorating atmosphere ahead of what promises to be a volatile marching season. Worryingly, there has so far been little sign of the close liaison between loyalist groups and the police which has taken place in previous years. The planned commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland, following partition, adds another dimension to a fraught situation.

Brexit, whether trade barriers were established on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea, was always destined to disrupt the fragile network of compromises and trade-offs that made up the Good Friday agreement. The task now must be to contain the fallout to the political arena. The DUP should dial it down and Mr Johnson's ministers must re-engage with making the protocol work as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible. The past weekend should serve as a warning.

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