Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

From the Irish Examiner, June 24.

Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

On Tuesday evening, the newly crowned US Champion Rory McIlroy touched down at George Best airport in East Belfast. It should have been a homecoming to unite Northern Ireland, a proud moment for the country, a positive face to show the world. Instead a typically sanguine McIllroy found himself in an unusual position – fielding questions about shootings, riots and sectarian skirmishes.

Less than five miles from the damp tarmac at George Best, the detritus of the previous night’s rioting – bricks, bottles, even golf balls – lay strewn across the junction of the lower Newtownards Road and the Short Strand. McIlroy, a native of Holywood, Co. Down, spoke for the vast majority of Northern Ireland when he told reporters how ‘saddened’ he was ‘to see what’s happened over the past couple of nights’.

This week’s riots are among the most serious civil disturbances witnessed on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent years – as the sudden ubiquity of foreign reporters in Belfast attests. Loyalists and dissident republicans firing live rounds at the police, a photographer and two Protestant youths with gunshot wounds, hundred-strong crowds lobbing everything from lit fireworks to petrol bombs: this is international news. And, unlike Rory Mc’s emphatic victory in Maryland, it is a Northern Irish story the world’s media are well versed in covering.

Less cut and dried, however, is the motivation behind the unrest. The Short Strand, effectively surrounded on three sides by a corrugated iron peacewall, is a staunchly nationalist enclave of less than 1,000 people in overwhelmingly unionist inner East Belfast. Relations between the communities have long been febrile: in 1970 the grounds of St Matthew’s Church was the scene of major gun battle between the IRA and loyalist mobs, while in 2002 clashes across the peaceline were a nightly feature for months.

 

Now the UVF, led by a renegade commander dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’, is reasserting their dominance in the area. Last month, in a marked departure from the current vogue for bright, friendly, inclusive murals on Belfast’s streets, a dour depiction of loyalist paramilitaries holding machine guns was painted on the corner of Dee Street and the Newtownards road. Kerbstones in the neighbourhood have been treated to a fresh coat of red, white and blue paint, lampposts to new UVF flags.

This ‘Beast from the East’ has the authority – and, more worryingly, the autonomy – to attract hundreds of loyalist youths, some even bussed in from other parts of the city, onto the streets of East Belfast. This was no spontaneous eruption of violence, whatever the ex post grievances about attacks on property last weekend by republican youths averred by the UVF’s putative political wing, the badly compromised Progressive Unionist Party.

Arriving on the heels of violence at the contentious Tour of the North Orange Order parade in North Belfast last Friday, the riots around the Short Strand mark a troubling detioration in the law and order situation in working-class districts of Belfast. As the marching season kicks into gear, the potential for further trouble in flashpoint areas – particularly at the Ardoyne on July 12 – should not be underestimated.

But to attribute the riots solely to the activity of a loyalist eminence grise, nefariously orchestrating mayhem behind the scenes, or the heightened political temperature that comes with the marching season, is to ignore important underlying aspects of life in Northern Ireland today.

Jobs, or more specifically their lack, are a festering sore on the body politic. At a whopping 28%, economic inactivity is higher in the North than anywhere else in the UK – a figure that rises sharply in deprived areas such as the Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road.

The housing market – a key driver of the post-peace process boom – has, like its southern neighbour, gone into freefall. Average house prices have tumbled from an eye-watering £250,000 to barely half that in just four years. At the same time, the heavily public sector dominated economy is feeling the pinch of Westminster-enforced austerity – this year Chancellor George Osborne loped almost £500m off Stormont’s block grant.

A dispiriting economic situation coupled with lack of employment opportunities in traditional industries such as ship building is the perfect breathing ground for sectarianism.

The continued division of Northern Irish society along sectarian lines has been one of the prevailing, if seldom commented upon, features of the post-Good Friday dispensation. Since 1994, the number of peacewalls has trebled: in the five years since the signing of the St Andrews Agreement, which heralded the restoration of power-sharing government, 11 new walls have been built between nationalist and unionist communities. In terms of housing, Belfast remains by far the most segregated city in Europe. Only 6% of Northern Irish school children attend integrated school.

The political classes at Stormont have yet to demonstrate a sincere willingness to address the legacy engendered by generations of sectarian strife. A Shared Future, a government strategy for promoting community relations drawn up at a cost of many millions to the taxpayer in the early years of the last decade, lay in abeyance before being shelved completely by the incoming Sinn Fein – DUP administration in 2006. In the absence of either A Shared Future or its decidedly lukewarm follow-up Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Northern Ireland, rather remarkably, has no formal policy on tackling sectarianism.

Slowly, noiselessly, reconciliation has slipped off the political agenda in the North. Without much maligned community workers on the ground – it was they, not Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who effectively brokered something akin to a ceasefire around the Short Strand on Wednesday – the situation in many communities would be even more perilous. At the same time funding for vast swathes of community relations work is under threat.

Major challenges lie ahead. Economic forecasts for the North remain dire, while a raft of commemorations, including centenaries of the Larne UVF gunrunning and the Easter Rising, will pose troubling questions for a divided society.

Rory McIlroy shows every sign of bagging more majors in the years ahead. Unfortunately, if significant investment and political drive in addressing sectarianism is not forthcoming, the amiable County Down man could find that questions about riots and street violence keep coming too.

Peter Geoghegan is the author of ‘A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the New Northern Ireland’, out now published by the Irish Academic Press.