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.