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.

Belfast Businesses Count Cost of Unrest

The weeks leading up to Christmas are normally a bumper time for the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast. One of the most popular restaurants in the city, empty tables at the Mourne are usually a collector’s item at weekends during the festive period. But not last Saturday. As protestors with Union Jack scarves across their faces stalked the streets of Belfast, many guests called to cancel their bookings.

‘We probably lost between £7000 and £8000 in our two Belfast restaurants,’ Bob McCoubrey joint owner of the Mourne Seafood Bar and its sister restaurant in Belfast, Home, as well as another premises in Dundrum, County Down, told the Sunday Business Post. McCoubrey estimated there were 50 to 60 cancellations on Saturday alone.

flagsdisorder_18122012‘The cancellations were mainly people worried about public transport, about getting home after dinner,’ he said. ‘The general public are not afraid but it is the hassle factor – they fear about how they will get home and are worried about being stuck in town.’

The Mourne Seafood Bar is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses in Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, effected by the on-goings loyalist protests. Belfast City Council’s recent ruling that the Union Jack will fly continuously from City Hall on fifteen designated days, rather than all year round sparked the demonstrations. The decision was the result of a compromise agreement between the Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power on the council, and Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

The loyalist protests are estimated to have cost Belfast businesses £3 million in lost revenue on Saturday. The true figure for losses could rise much higher, said Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIRTA). ‘This is the most important trading time of the year. Our members are hoping for a good end to what has been a difficult year for many and now they are finding that they have lost trade and are being forced to close,’ he said.

Last Saturday should have been one of the busiest trading days in the year for HMV in Donegall Arcade, in the centre of Belfast. Instead footfall was down 40 per cent, said manager James Rider. In all, the number of customers passing through the store has declined a quarter since the protests began.

‘This is roughly in line with that is happening across the city centre. I know of seven or eight other shops that would have seen similar falls in footfall in the last week,’ Rider said.

As protests have spread beyond Belfast to other towns and centres across Northern Ireland, many business people are concerned about how long the disruption will continue. ‘If it lasts through December it’s frightening to think what could happen to businesses,’ said Rider.

‘There is a fear that this could drag on until Christmas,’ said NIRTA’s Glyn Roberts said. ‘The blunt reality is that for some businesses unless they have a good Christmas they not be here in the New Year.’

Speaking in the wake of the fire bombing of a police patrol car outside the constituency office of East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long on Monday night, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers said that protestors were, ‘doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the run-up to Christmas.’

‘And they undermine those who are working tirelessly to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity,’ Ms Villiers said.

Many are worried that images of burning flags and rioters on the streets, so redolent of the dark days of the Troubles, could do lasting damage to the North’s hard won reputation as a tourist destination. ‘Probably the biggest cost is the whole impact of what’s happening on Belfast as a destination,’ Bob McCoubrey, proprietor of the Mourne Seafood Bar, said.

Having invested heavily in an international campaign entitled ‘Our Time, Our Place’ for 2012, the wave of protests are the last thing Northern Ireland Tourist Board, or the local economy, needs. ‘A lot of people south of the border have never come to Northern Ireland. This won’t help to encourage them to come,’ said Mr McCoubrey.

Questions have been raised about the decision to vote on the controversial issue of the flag on Belfast City Hall at such an important time of the business years. In HMV, manager James Rider was ‘concerned’ that councillors did not decide to postpone the vote until the New Year given its potential effect during the busiest trading period of the year. ‘Given the current economic climate in Northern Ireland, I just can’t see why someone would not have gone, ‘hang on, let’s push this decision back’. There was obviously going to be some sort of political fall out to it.’

Others believe that, regardless of the timing, Northern Irish leaders need to focus on the economic issues, not national symbols. ‘The number one priority should be ‘what impact will this have on the economy?’ They (the politicians) talk about tourism and the economy all year round but when they get a chance to take a cheap shot at the other side, this is both sides, they cannot resist it,’ Mr McCoubrey said. ‘The rest of the world has moved on. And the business community is stuck in the middle.’

Northern Ireland is certainly facing challenging economic times. Most of the protesters hail from working class Protestant communities scarred by de-industralisation and with some of the lowest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the UK. Meanwhile, unemployment continues to rise in Northern Ireland, even as it is falling elsewhere in the UK.

Earlier this week, the latest Labour Force Survey showed that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Northern Ireland is up almost one per cent on last year, at 7.8 per cent.  The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits stood at 64,700 in November 2012 – an increase of 500 on the previous month. 54.6 per cent of those unemployed in Northern Ireland have been unemployed for one year or more. This figure is up 16.2 per cent on last year.

Even before this week’s unrest, businesses in Northern Ireland faced a tough trading environment. One in five shops in Northern Ireland are now vacant, according to a recent survey by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC). This figure, the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, is nearly twice the national average.

‘Belfast already has 1 in 4 shops vacant and the overall trend is moving toward a quarter of all shops being vacant by the middle of 2013,’ said Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts. The protests, he said, could lead to increases in vacancy. Many shop owners are also afraid of attacks on their property.

‘What we need now is to focus on how to move things forward,’ Roberts said. ‘This is the responsibility of all the main political parties at Stormont. We cannot afford for these protests to continue. I would appeal to the protesters to recognise the damage they are doing to the economy and to stop.’

The article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 16/12/2012.