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Loyalist Protests In Northern Ireland Threaten To Inflame Old Tensions


British loyalists who want to stay part of the United Kingdom called off their protests in Northern Ireland today. They did so after the death of Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip, which brought a temporary pause to some of the worst rioting Northern Ireland has seen in years. To walk us through the events of the day, we're joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt in Belfast.

Frank, give us the context. What's been happening in Northern Ireland this past week, and at what point did things change today?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. It's been really interesting, Audie. Basically, riots started about a week ago - British loyalists throwing Molotov cocktails, carjacking, burning a bus, police (inaudible) water cannon yesterday. And ostensibly, this is over - partly to do with Brexit. Brexit has created a new border in the Irish Sea, basically cutting people here off from what they consider the motherland, Great Britain. They're very angry about it, and there was a lot of chatter on social media today that there would be a lot more protests across the city tonight. Then word this morning came that Prince Philip had died, and signs went up in an area that I was last night, where there was a fair bit of clashing with the police, saying that they wanted to postpone these protests, which have really been riots, because of - out of respect for the queen and the royal family. So mostly tonight, Belfast is surprisingly quiet.

CORNISH: Did they have anything else to say about what this halt in the protests might mean, kind of what was behind their decision?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that one thing you'll find when you talk to people in Northern Ireland who are British loyalists, they have a great love for the royal family. And it's funny. There was one I was talking to you today who was saying, you know, we feel sometimes more British than the people across the water in Great Britain. And I certainly encountered that as well.

It was also poignant, which kind of gets to the psychology and identity here of being Northern Ireland apart from the rest the United Kingdom. And he said when he's in England, a lot of people just treat him and consider him Irish because of his accent. Of course, he feels he's part of the United Kingdom, and he feels like a foreigner in his own country. And I think a lot of people here in Northern Ireland feel that way when they're over in Great Britain.

CORNISH: What's going on in the nationalist areas, where people do tend to favor closer links to the Irish Republic?

LANGFITT: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, many people here would like to unite with the Irish Republic, and that's what they have wanted for many years. And maybe one day, they might be able to have a vote on that. I'm actually in a neighborhood right now, a nationalist one, where there was a pipe bomb - suspected pipe bomb found in the yard of an Irish Republican this afternoon. I'm actually looking at the police vans, and the police tape are still up. And they brought in a robot and blew it up. It sounded like it was maybe more likely it was a hoax.

We're also expecting a very quiet night among the nationalists. They - with the loyalists staying home, they don't have anyone to fight except the police. And when I was talking to Irish nationalists here, they blamed the loyalists for voting for Brexit in the first place. I was talking to a guy named Chris (ph). He's an Irish Republican. He didn't want his name used because things are very tense here. And this is how he put it.

CHRIS: It's a reactionist response to a Brexit vote that they campaigned for and voted for, not knowing what the results would be. They advocated for Brexit, not knowing what it would bring about.

CORNISH: Just a few seconds left here, Frank. What should we be looking for over the next couple of days?

LANGFITT: You know, Northern Ireland politics are unpredictable, but many expect the riots will start up again Prince Philip's funeral. And there's one other thing I want to add, Audie. You know, not everything here is all political and about Brexit. Many people here think that loyalist paramilitaries who work in the drug business, that they're actually Brexit as a pretext to get some of these kids to come out and riot and take revenge on police. This is what that guy Chris said.

CHRIS: You know, you've got the loyalist drug gangs that are orchestrating this, (unintelligible) just laughing while the young working-class loyalist kids are being used as pawns.

CORNISH: That's NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt reporting from Belfast, as he said. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.