Comment: Further unrest in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is once again consumed by unrest which it is feared could be characteristic of the ‘new normal’, writes Peter Geoghegan

Police clash with loyalist protesters in Belfast city centre as they attempt to block part of the route of the Anti-Internment League parade on Friday. Picture: PA

At FOUR in the morning on Monday 9 August, 1971, Operation Demetrius began, to the sound of plastic bullet rounds and doors being kicked in across Northern Ireland.

The British army operation to round up suspected Irish republicans was a success on its own terms – 342 people were arrested and interned without trial – but it set in motion a deadly sequence of events.

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Over the next four days, 24 people were killed, including 20 civilians. Internment had a lasting impact too, driving many ordinary Catholics into the arms of a resurgent IRA.

Over forty years on, internment is a fading memory, but in Northern Ireland the past can quickly infect the present – as last weekend’s unrest attested.

On Friday night, a march to commemorate the introduction of internment took place in Belfast. Many of those involved hailed from republican groups opposed to the peace process.

There had been talk of trouble in the days leading up the march – and, with the self-fulfilling prophecy quality that has long been the hallmark of violence in Northern Ireland, so it transpired. Around 1,200 loyalists, gathered on Royal Avenue to protest against the republican parade, clashed with police, leaving Belfast city centre coated in broken glass.

Nearby LGBT-friendly pubs had their windows broken. In all, 56 police officers were injured in the disturbances, cars were burned out and the reputation of Belfast took another pummeling.

This violence is just latest in what has arguably been the most difficult period in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. While there were many times in the intervening 15 years in which it looked as if the political settlement would crumble – particularly during the long road to republican decommissioning in the early 2000s – these were political problems resolved by high-level dialogue. This year, however, the politics of the street has returned with a vengeance.

Back in December, loyalists erupted after Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag from City Hall on 15 designated days each year, rather than continuously as had previously been the case. It was a victory for compromise – Irish republicans, some of them former IRA members, had voted to retain the red, white and blue – but political unionism chose to depict it as another milestone in the erosion of “British culture” in Northern Ireland. The result was months of protests that cost millions in policing and damages and pushed working class Catholic and Protestant communities even further apart.

Then, last month, trouble flared up during annual Twelfth of July parades after Police Service of Northern Ireland officers prevented parading Orangemen from passing the Ardoyne shops and the Crumlin Road, in North Belfast.

Dozens of police officers were injured and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP, Nigel Dodds, had to go to hospital after being struck in the head by a brick during sectarian rioting.

Of course, the summer season, with its marches and processions, is always a time of heightened tensions in Northern Ireland. In the mid-1990s, as the nascent peace bandwagon was slowly beginning to roll, the stand off between the Orange Order and local residents at Drumcree continually threatened to derail the process. But there are good reasons to be worried that the recent unrest in Northern Ireland is less a seasonal aberration and more characteristic of the “new normal”.

Many working class loyalists have become increasingly disillusioned with life under a power-sharing assembly at Stormont. Beside effigies of the Pope and Irish tricolours, a huge Twelfth bonfire in Belfast bore another message, scrawled in black on a sheet tacked against piles of wooden pallets: “F*** your shared future.”

The reality is that for most working class communities – republican or loyalist – there is no shared present in Northern Ireland, never mind an irenic communal future. Children still overwhelmingly attend separate Catholic and Protestant schools. While the increasingly Catholic middle-classes are on the whole happy to mix, working-class neighbourhoods have, if anything, become more segregated in the decade and a half since the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

The agreement was also predicated on a particular economic logic – that rising prosperity would erode ethnic divisions in Northern Ireland. Trips to out-of-town shopping centres would replace triumphalist parades as leisure pursuits; brand logos would usurp flags as symbols of identity. Combatants would be turned into consumers.

The financial crash of 2008 put paid to all that. Northern Ireland’s boom – backed largely by an over-heated housing market and easy credit – turned to bust. Unemployment increased sharply, and while it is slowly coming down purchasing power across the region remains chronically depressed in the face of a moribund economy reliant on Westminster largesse. One in four shops in Northern Ireland is vacant.

For working-class loyalist communities, many of them scarred by decades of deindustrialistation, “culture” has become a clarion call. You might not, as John Hume, former leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) wryly commented, be able to eat a flag, but you can rally marginalised folk around it. Which is exactly what the Progressive Unionist Party and other loyalists, including erstwhile BNP foot soldier Jim Dowson, have been doing.

Bereft of ideas, mainstream unionism offers only bromides. On Friday night, as images of burned out cars in Belfast beamed across the world, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbit tweeted: “No one won tonight. We all lost. Everyone think. Give Haass a chance”.

Haass is Richard N Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former special envoy to Northern Ireland who has agreed to chair talks intended to tackle some of the most divisive issues affecting Northern Ireland. The “All-Party Panel” negotiations – to take place among the five parties represented in the Stormont Executive – will address sensitive issues including parades and protests; flags, symbols, and emblems; and dealing with past. The panel is due to present a set of recommendations supported by all parties before the end of this year.

Whether it can do all that remains to be seen, but Northern Ireland’s reliance on international intervention to solve domestic problems is telling. Power-sharing, the sine qua non of the Good Friday Agreement, has proved a fragile, ineffectual form of government. The system, which guarantees both nationalists and unionists power, has left voters facing an electoral version of the “prisoner’s dilemma” – vote for a moderate party and risk your sectarian “Other” voting for an extremist, or vote extreme yourself to counteract that threat. The result: the annihilation of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP in the centre ground, and the emergence of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as the dominant political forces on both sides of the ethnic divide.

The Good Friday Agreement envisaged a post-sectarian Northern Ireland at the same time as its institutionalised sectarian division. This paradox was a price worth paying to end the armed conflict, but 15 years on serious questions need to be asked about Northern Ireland’s political future – something which both a Conservative coalition with little interest in Northern Ireland and a southern Irish political class that has barely concealed contempt for its neighbour across the border have shown little appetite for.

Back in 1971, when Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner asked Ted Heath to re-introduce internment, the unionist leader was the ruler of a one-party state. Nowadays Northern Ireland is a two-party state with parallel parties and systems of patronage. I can think of a few names for that, but “a shared future” isn’t one of them.

• Peter Geoghegan is author of A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the new Northern Ireland.