Two days of riots in Belfast as sectarian violence flares

By Emma Butler

On Tuesday night Northern Ireland witnessed a second evening of violent riots, concentrated in the Ardoyne area of northern Belfast.

Crowds of around two hundred people gathered to oppose the Orange Order parade that marched through the Catholic area of Ardoyne. The annual parade takes place on the 12th of July, marking the most important day of the Ulster Loyalist marching season. These parades celebrate the victory of the Protestant Prince William of Orange over the Catholic King James II in July 1690.

Tensions erupted after police in riot gear assembled ahead of the parade in an attempt to control the groups, and violent rioting followed as the crowds threw petrol bombs, fireworks, stones and bottles. A number of police officers were injured, including one officer who suffered minor burns to his face, and this barrage of violence continued for well over six hours after the parade had passed the Ardoyne shops at 7pm.

Ardoyne residents have constantly opposed the march, and the route of the Orange Order parade through the nationalist area has been a contentious issue for the Parades Commission, which has monitored and regulated marches for many years. The parade continues to be a problem and each year sees renewed protests and rioting opposed to it.

This tradition of violent protests and the continuation of sectarian dissension is a common feature of Northern Ireland and has not necessarily disappear after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Since 2002 there has been an increase of renewed violence in areas of Belfast and across the country.

In East Belfast the Nationalist society of Short Strand is neighboured by a Loyalist estate, and these two communities have to be physically divided by a barrier called a “Peace wall”. Across the city there are currently more “peace walls” now than existed in 1994, when a ceasefire was officially agreed by the Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. Furthermore, the purchase of 60 brand-new armoured police Land Rovers on the streets in northern Belfast shows how precarious the security situation in Northern Ireland remains, and how violence, albeit on a reduced scale, still remains a fact of life for some communities.

However, despite these continued tensions within communities, the eruption of violence over the past few days was not solely due to sectarian disputes. Opposition does not always have to translate directly into violence, it can also be a relatively peaceful process, and this was the case for a majority of the republican community in Ardoyne.

The recent riots have exposed the major differences which exist between the factions of the republican population. On the one hand, there is the ‘mainstream’ republicans who support the peace process, and on the other, a group that supports armed violence. Nigel Dodds, DUP MP for Northern Belfast, claims that the violence “was intended, created and brought into existence by a small group of militant extreme republicans”.

In the past, mainstream republicans have often been able to use their influence to calm the tensions which emerge around the 12th of July. However, the distinction between the two groups was clear on Tuesday evening, as former IRA senior members successfully marshalled one group of protestors, but clearly lacked any significant influence over the others who continued to throw petrol bombs and bricks. Therefore, whilst perhaps all of the republican community opposed the march, only a small group were actively encouraging violence.

Groups of this sort tend to be composed of unemployed young men, who have been alienated from the political process and often have little interest in creating political peace. Furthermore, children as young as 10 who are too young to have developed any political opinions or awareness were also involved in the rioting.

Add to this a historical mistrust of the police and figures of authority, and you get a group with no respect and resentment of authority. In addition, the influence of ideological republican dissident groups such as the Real IRA has strengthened the damaging belief that violence does pay. Taking this into account, it is of little surprise that the protests against the Orange Order march descended into violence.

So, while sectarian tensions are still a very real part of life for many people in Northern Ireland, in this instance the violent protests had little to do with the Orange Order march in the Catholic Ardoyne area. They were initiated by a minority group whose actions stemmed from a desire to create a violent atmosphere and undermine the influence of figures of authority, such as the police, rather than a wish to inspire genuine political and social change.

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