Belfast Unrest – the View from the Interfaces

Belfast is often described as a patchwork quilt of conflicting loyalties. Most residents live on streets that are overwhelmingly nationalist or unionist. Imposing ‘peace walls’ physically divide communities one each another. This has long been the case on the Suffolk estate in West Belfast, where a small Protestant community of less than a thousand people are separated from the much larger Catholic population in Lenadoon.

During the Troubles, tensions between Suffolk and Lenadoon often ran high, particularly when the latter grew quickly in the early 1970s with the influx of many Catholic families displaced from other parts of Belfast. Since the ceasefires, relations between the two communities have calmed significantly; last year, as part of a government-backed scheme, loyalist paramilitary murals in Suffolk were removed, flags were taken down and a new art work created on the interface.

But tensions across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface have ratcheted up since loyalist protests against the Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the union flag from City Hall on fifteen designated days a year rather than continuously began in early December.

Protests have taken place ‘every night’ in loyalist Suffolk, said Paddy O’Donnell, a director of the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project, a cross-community social enterprise business that abuts interface. ‘What has also appeared are massive union jacks as high as they can be raised,’ he said.

Michael Doherty, a member of the management committee of the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG), agreed. ‘Since the flag protests a load of union jacks have gone up on the interface, the road has been blocked (by loyalist protesters) and some cars have been attacked.’

While violence in East Belfast – most of it centred around the interface between the nationalist Short Strand and the unionist Newtownards Road – has dominated news headlines and many police officers injured, the unrest seems to be having a destabilising effect on other interfaces across Belfast. So-called recreational rioting, much of it organised by youths on social media, has increased across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface in recent weeks.

‘Relationships have been damaged,’ said Paddy O’Donnell. ‘All our work is based on relationships. When those relationships are damaged it takes people to come out and put their head above the parapet to try and start rebuilding them. It’s difficult but it can be done,’ he said.

Issues of identity and territory are seldom far away in north Belfast, a four square mile patchwork of sectarian enclaves where kerbstones turn from red, white and blue to green in a matter of footsteps. The troubles had a disproportionate impact on north Belfast: just 5 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population live in the area, yet it accounted for a fifth of all those who lost their lives in the conflict.

The on-going loyalists protests have not spilled over into violence in north Belfast but the disturbances have ‘destabilised things’, said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Group, which has its headquarters on the nationalist Cliftonville Road.

‘It is not happening on our doorsteps but it is a reminder of what happened in the past,’ he said. ‘It does have a negative impact on community relations in North Belfast. This (violence) does not create confidence it brings back fear. It brings the physical fear back into play again.’

In nearby Tigers Bay, John Howcroft, a community worker and former loyalist political prisoner, has found cross-community engagements have been ‘more unpopular and difficult’ since the protests began. Political leaders, on both sides of the peace walls, must shoulder the blame for the violence, said Howcroft.

‘Politics has laid the foundation for this path that people are on. Politicians has to take responsibility for this – they should have been focusing on education, investment and employment, things that would have made a real difference in people’s lives,’ he said.

Unemployment in Tigers Bay runs at over 50 per cent. In many nationalist interface areas, jobless rates are just as high. Across the city, life expectancy is ten years lower near the interface; rates of mental illness, depression and family breakdown are all higher in the shadow of the peace walls. Increased use of alcohol, drugs and prescription medication is closely correlated with proximity to peace lines.

‘We have the same issues in both communities,’ said John Howcroft. The same is true across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface, said Paddy O’Donnell from the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project.

‘Both areas suffer from acute unemployment. There is acute criminality. There is prescription drug abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. There’s more off licences, take away shops and chemists than you can shake a stick at,’ he said.

Michael Doherty would like to see nationalists and unionists from both sides of protesting together, not about flags or symbols but about the swingeing budget cut that the Executive at Stormont has implemented in recent years. ‘We should be out there together protesting about social and economic cutbacks from Stormont.’

While the unrest has raised tensions across Belfast, the violence has been largely confined to East Belfast, said Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research and an expert on interfaces. ‘A lot of the disorder is largely confined to East Belfast, which seems to resonate with the summer of 2011 (when there was serious unrest in the East of the city) and the particular dynamics of the UVF in that area’. Last week Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed the involvement of senior Ulster Volunteer Force figures in the violence in East Belfast.

Those on the interface are watching closely to see where the protests go from here. ‘They can carry on being a nuisance and a problem but will it grow? As long as they can maintain the numbers at City Hall (where protests have been taking place every Saturday since the flag was removed) they could continue but it is difficult to see how it would grow unless something stupid happens,’ said Neil Jarman.

As long as the protests continue, criticism of the PSNI seems certain to grow. Willie Frazer, one of the self-styled leaders of the Ulster People’s Forum, which has emerged from the flag protests, has blamed the unrest in East Belfast on ‘wrong policing’. Many nationalists say that the police have treated loyalist protesters too leniently, pointing to the example of the twenty-six people arrested for participating in a sit-down protest at a disputed Orange Order parade in Ardoyne on 12 July 2010.

‘Are we going back to political policing? There seems to be one law for the loyalists and another for us,’ said Michael Doherty. ‘People in this community are saying ‘we thought policing had changed’, but in reality we are looking at the police facilitating (loyalist) protestors. That has caused considerable anger.’

Community leaders on both sides are worried that the recent unrest will culminate in a fatality, with potentially massive repercussions for the North. ‘Our experience tells us that these things only go one way. They lead to violence, they lead it death. People need to step back now before there is a death,’ said John Howcroft, from loyalist Tigers Bay.

‘It’s politics that created this mess, and only politics will solve it. Are the politicians ready for that?’

Bringing Down the Barricades?

More than two-thirds of people living near peace walls in Northern Ireland believe the barriers are still necessary, a study conducted by the University of Ulster last year found.

While almost 60 per cent of residents in interface areas said they would like to see the walls removed, only 38 per cent of residents believed this would actually happen.

‘Removing the wall is the easy bit. It’s getting to the stage where they can be taken down that’s the challenge,’ said Dr Jonny Byrne, one of the authors of the study.

Almost one hundred peace walls separate nationalist and unionist communities in Belfast. There have been some minor successes in recent years – such as the opening of a ‘peace gate’ in the corrugated iron fence that has divided Alexandra Park in North Belfast since 1994 – but the vast majority of barriers remain.

The unrest around the flag at Belfast City Hall could make the task of removing some of the peace walls even more difficult. ‘The majority of people want the peace walls to come down when the time is right, but this (violence) makes that harder,’ said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Network.

The University of Ulster study found a much higher level of pessimism about removing the barriers among Protestants than Catholics. McCallum has seen this first hand in North Belfast, where most peace lines are located.

‘This is a stronger concern among people in the Protestant community that the wall will come down and they could lose their identity.’ Their fears are not groundless: around 80 per cent of those on housing list in North Belfast are Catholic. ‘People feel that they are being squeezed. It’s not a balanced situation, Protestants feel much more threatened than Catholics.’

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 201/01/2013.


In Belfast

Apparently there were 43 illegal roadblocks in Belfast on Monday night. In a bar with Christmas lights on the ceiling, a hundred yards from a City Hall not flying the Union Jack, most drinkers were glued to their smart phones. The man beside me was scrolling through the #flegs hashtag on Twitter. (So was I.) His friend was trying to work out if his bus was running. In the end they decided to share a taxi home.

That night, in East Belfast, a firebomb was thrown at a police car outside the constituency office of the local MP. Naomi Long is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which came up with the compromise solution to the problem of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall: the flag will now fly on 15 designated days a year, not continuously as it did until last week.

Sinn Fein’s support for a British flag having any presence at all on a government building on the island of Ireland could have been interpreted as yet another co-option of republicans into a state they spent decades trying to violently overthrow. But many unionists didn’t see it that way. As councillors were voting in City Hall on 3 December, angry loyalists gathered outside. They have been on the streets ever since.

Earlier this week a protest timetable was circulated online. It seems to be genuine: on Tuesday, an hour after a demonstration was scheduled to begin at Mount Vernon, a loyalist estate in North Belfast, I was forced to make a U-turn on the nearby Shore Road, an arterial route into Belfast, which was blocked by around 25 protesters with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces. Behind them, a row of battered white PSNI Saracens kept a safe distance.

Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is aligned with the Ulster Volunteer Force, has called the unrest ‘a revolution with a small r’. The PUP and, to a lesser extent, the Ulster Political Research Group, the public face of the Ulster Defence Association, have been on the streets. But many of the demonstrators seem to be recent online recruits, organised by a new group calling itself United Protestant Voice, which sounds like a throwback to the 1960s or 1970s.

After a protracted text message conversation, one of the leaders of the protest at Belfast City Hall on 3 December agreed to be interviewed by email. The council’s decision to remove the flag was, he said, ‘like someone stabbing you through the heart’. The 32-year-old, who lives on the outskirts of Belfast and asked to remain anonymous, is a member of the Orange Order and the Democratic Unionist Party. In the weeks leading up to the vote, he set up a Facebook page called ‘Save Our Union Jack (City Hall)’. More than 1500 people signed up.

Most of the protesters are young men from Protestant areas, where educational attainment is low and employment scarce. The perception that their culture is being eroded is pervasive:

We had the UDR, that British Army Regiment was Disbanded, We had the RUC changed to the PSNI, The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast was Changed to the Royal Hospital but even that isn’t welcomed they want the Hospital renamed again. The Royal Mail they want changed to the Northern Ireland Postal Service, Anything British they want removed.

Unionist leaders aren’t exactly trying to allay such fears. A statement released by the Ulster Unionist Party this week claimed that there ‘is a fundamental issue regarding the chipping away of people’s identity as British citizens’. Basil McCrea, a liberal UUP MLA, has lost his party’s whip for his ‘lack of self-discipline and teamwork’ after he suggested that taking the flag dispute to Stormont was a ‘stupid idea’.

The loyalist angst seems misplaced. The 2011 census results, released on Tuesday, show that only a quarter of Northern Ireland’s resident population define themselves as Irish; 40 per cent self-identify as British. A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 52 per cent of Catholics wanted to keep the Union and only 35 per cent wanted Irish unification.

The Union may be safe for the time being, but loyalists’ grip on the past is looking less secure. The Pat Finucane Review – which found ‘shocking’ evidence of state collusion in the murder of the Belfast solicitor – raises more questions than it answers: why was Finucane not told about threats to his life? Was the killing authorised by the RUC or MI5? How was it possible that, in 1985, 85 per cent of UDA intelligence came from the British security forces? Meanwhile, the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team is investigating a number of Troubles deaths linked to loyalist paramilitaries.

On the streets of Northern Ireland, the protests look set to continue. There’ll be another rally in Belfast tomorrow; demonstrations are also planned on the mainland at council offices in Margate, Glasgow, Fife and Livingston. ‘We will not Surrender to Republicans within this county,’ my loyalist contact wrote. ‘Our flag will fly again 365 days a year over Belfast City Hall.’ A seasoned Northern Irish political analyst who has worked with the Progressive Unionist Party predicted that the unrest would last until Christmas. ‘What happens in the New Year is the big question.’

 This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

What Happened to Northern Ireland’s Shared Future?

In 2005, Northern Ireland’s joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont published ‘A Shared Future’. The policy, an unashamedly irenic blueprint for a post-conflict society, included plans for addressing contentious issues such as flags and emblems and parading. Every government department would have to create action plans to ensure A Shared Future was fully implemented.

Eight years later, A Shared Future has been largely forgotten. In 2007, when Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to share power, the policy was quietly shunted aside. Both parties offered a bowdlerised version, entitled Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), for consultation. A draft of the CSI has still to be agreed upon — almost a decade and a half on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has no official anti-sectarian strategy.

A shiny policy document would, of course, offer little practical protection against youths wielding bricks and petrol bombs – a dispiritingly familiar sight in East Belfast this week – but A Shared Future’s failure is a cautionary tale of the political reality of contemporary Northern Ireland.

In 1998, in the first elections after the Agreement, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists emerged as the largest parties. Last year, the DUP affirmed their political supremacy by again topping the Assembly polls. Sinn Fein finished a very clear second. The non-sectarian Alliance attracted fewer than 8 per cent of voters in 2011, up just over 1 per cent on 1998.

As their more moderate rivals wither on the vine, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have any real motivation for reaching out across the sectarian divide. Community relations have ossified to the point where a majority of Protestants cannot envisage a time when there are no peace walls and disenfranchised loyalists burn tricolours outside Belfast City Hall to express their angry, inchoate confusion.

Faced with a crisis they did much to create, Northern Unionists have plumped for unity over sharing. On Thursday, the new Unionist Forum set up by Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson and his Ulster Unionist Party counterpart Mike Nesbitt met for the first time. Among the representatives in the room at Stormont, were members of the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wings of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force respectively.

Senior UVF figures have been heavily involved in the violence in East Belfast, as Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed earlier this week. The UVF’s leader in the East of the city – dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’ – has orchestrated the unrest, as he did during the riots in East Belfast in 2011. Chief among their aims is that the Historical Enquires Team, which was set up to examine unsolved murders committed during the Troubles, cease its investigation of a number of high profile loyalists.

While the recent violence has won a place for loyalist paramilitaries at the table with the Northern Ireland first minister on Thursday, the Ulster People’s Forum (UPF), the new grouping that has emerged at the vanguard of the unrest, were conspicuous by their absence. Willie Frazer is a familiar face on the fringes of loyalism, but many of the UPF’s other leaders are relative novices politicised by the protests that started outside Belfast City Hall on December. Jamie Bryson, a young evangelical Christian who has been at the forefront of the new group, has said that they might join the Unionism Forum at some stage. There is a far-right presence among the protesters, too: former British National Party organiser Jim Dowson has been prominent in the regular demonstrations outside Belfast City Hall.

The bulk of the protestors are young men from working class neighbourhoods of Belfast where levels of educational attainment are as dismal as turnout at elections. They are among those worst hit by Northern Ireland’s continuing downturn. Unemployment has risen 170 per cent in the last five years. The number of youth claimants is 26 per cent higher than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. One in four young people are out of work.

That the solution to the current unrest must be political is about the only thing the North’s political classes all agree on. Not all unionists, however, believe that unity is the answer. Liberal UUP MLA John McCallister has spent the last year trying to force through legislation that would see the Ulster Unionists form a formal Opposition at Stormont. The power-sharing set-up by the Good Friday Agreement has, he argues, created monolithic nationalist and unionist blocs that speak only to their bases and are not properly accountable. He has a point.

Almost fifteen years on from the signing of the Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever. That the political situation is replicated on the streets should be no surprise. A shared future can be built in Northern Ireland, but first the foundations have to be laid. A dedicated anti-sectarian strategy and a genuine Opposition would be a start.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 13 January 2013.

Census Shows Changing NI

The proportion of Catholics in Northern Ireland has increased in the last decade, according to census figures released yesterday. The census shows that 48.36 per cent of the resident population are either Protestant or brought up Protestant, while over 45 per cent are Catholic or raised Catholic.

The census, which was held in March 2011, recorded a 5 per cent drop in Northern Ireland’s Protestant population from 2001. The proportion of Catholics has risen by one per cent, to 45.14 per cent, fuelling suggestions in some quarters that Catholics could outnumber Protestants within a generation or less.

The fall in the Protestant proportion can be explained by migration and the presence of an older population with a higher mortality rate, Dr Jonny Byrne from the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the University of Ulster, told the Scotsman.

‘The census confirms the further decline in the Protestant population,’ Dr Byrne said. ‘They are an older population and that age difference is being played out in the findings of the survey.’

The census was conducted by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency on 27 March 2011. The statistics released yesterday provide a wide ranging profile of the Northern Ireland population covering health, housing, educational qualifications, labour market activity and migration but by far the most closely watched findings relate to demography and identity.

Since 2001, the Northern Ireland census has included a question asking what religion a respondent was brought up in. Those who do not state a religious affiliation but who do indicate that they were raised as Catholic or Protestant are reassigned into the appropriate ‘community’ category using answers to this measure.

In the 2011 census, statisticians were unable to designate seven per cent of respondents as Catholic or Protestant, an increase of four per cent compared with the 2001 census. Most of those now designated as having no religion would have previously been classified as Protestant.

For the first time, the Northern Ireland census included a direct question about national identity. Two-fifths (40%) said they had a British only national identity, a quarter (25%) had Irish only and just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only identity.

‘The most interesting statistic is the huge increase in the proportion saying that they are Northern Irish over the last twenty years,’ said Dr Byrne. Rory McIlroy personifies this ‘young, confident constituency’, he said. ‘He is neither British nor Irish, he is proud to be Northern Irish.’

Dr Byrne believes that the increase in a definably Northern Irish identity poses ‘big political questions’: ‘How do you celebrate being Northern Irish? What does it mean to be Northern Irish? I think it has huge implications for schools, churches, politics, sports.’

‘My fear is that they won’t be given an opportunity to express themselves, they will be dragged back into, ‘Are you British or Irish? Are you Loyalist or Republican.’

The census results come during a difficult period in Northern Ireland, with on-going protests, sparked by a decision to fly the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall on fifteen designated days rather than throughout the year. On Monday night, a loyalist mob firebombed a police car outside the office of Naomi Long, Alliance party MP for East Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s growing Catholic population does not mean that Irish unification is just around the corner. In July, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that fifty two per cent of Catholics living in Northern Ireland wanted that union to continue. Only 35 per cent wanted a united Ireland.

‘Many Catholics are pro-union,’ Ulster Unionist MLA John McAllister told the Scotsman.‘Their heart might say United Ireland, but their head knows that the best option is to stay in the union.’

Northern Irish Census in Numbers

1.811m: The population of Northern Ireland in March 2011, up 125,600 (7.5 per cent) on a decade earlier.

338,544: the number of respondents aged 16 and over who had achieved Level 4 or higher qualifications (24 per cent). 416,851 had no qualifications.

59: the percentage of people usually resident in Northern Ireland who hold a UK passport. Twenty-one per cent hold an Irish passport; 19 per cent have no passport.

17,700: the number of people who speak Polish, the most prevalent main language other than English (1 per cent).

11: the percentage of usual residents aged three years and over with some ability in Irish in 2011 (compared to 10% in 2001). 8.1 per cent had some ability in Ulster-Scots.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman on Dec 12.

Pat Finucane Review ‘Shocking’

That security forces colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland during the Troubles has long been common knowledge, but David Cameron was right yesterday when he described the levels of state collusion uncovered by Sir Desmond de Silva QC as ‘shocking’. De Silva found that the men who murdered solicitor Pat Finucane at his home in west Belfast in February 1989 were agents and informers working for the state, via the army’s Force Research Unit (FRU).

Shocking is the only word for it. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was aware of two previous plans to kill Finucane earlier but declined to inform him. De Silva also found that state forces were supplying the loyalist Ulster Defence Association with the bulk of its intelligence.

The shadowy Force Research Unit has already been implicated in the deaths of at least 14 Catholics in the 1980s, during which time British Army Intelligence Corps double agent Brian Nelson was also intelligence chief for the UDA. In 1990, Sir John Stevens found little evidence of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, but the former head of the Metropolitan police has since revised his view.

David Cameron has previously rejected calls for a full inquiry into Pat Finucane’s death, most voluably from his widow Geraldine, but the pressure for a full investigation is only likely to grow. The de Silva report comes at a difficult time for Northern Ireland, with on-going loyalist protests across the country following the decision to limit the flying of Union Jack from Belfast City Hall to fifteen designated days a year. Yesterday, census results showed that Northern Ireland’s Protestant population had slipped below 50 per cent for the first time.

The scale of the collusion uncovered by de Silva also begs the question whether an independent review is needed into all suspected cases of state collusion during the Troubles. Such a process would doubtless prove controversial, for political and economic reasons. While Sinn Féin would almost certainly support the proposal, the Democratic Unionist party would oppose it. Inquiries are expensive, too: the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday cost £191m.

But an independent review could work if both the British and Irish governments committed to declassifying documents relating to the Troubles and participating in a series of more focused reviews targeted at specific incidents where security force involvement has been questioned. Shocking as it is, the de Silva report suggests that there is more to learn about the nature of the British state’s involvement in the chaotic violence of the Troubles.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman on December 13.