Another summer in Northern Ireland doesn’t come by without another riot sparked by parades in north Belfast. Despite the rhetoric of conciliation and progress often employed by Ministers of the Assembly, the record keeps skipping back to the same old tired tune of division and violence.
The most recent spate of rioting happened over three nights from September 3-6 in the Carlisle Circus area of north Belfast – a fault line between Protestant and Catholic communities which has seen rioting in the past. Over 60 police officers were injured during the trouble as they were bombarded with fireworks, petrol bombs and bricks. Over 300 youths gathered on opposite sides of a police blockade after a Republican parade and a rival loyalist protest clashed in the area.
The worrying thing is that this is nothing new to Belfast residents. Every summer, like a recurring pandemic, riots erupt over Belfast, which are nominally caused by Protestant or Catholic bands marching through areas in which they are not welcome. The Republican leader Martin McGuinness condemned the riots as “a terrible display of bigotry and sectarianism” while the Unionist leader and First Minister of the Assembly Peter Robinson said that the problem would only be resolved “on the basis of there being mutual respect; respect for the rights of people to parade and respect from those who are parading for the communities in which they are parading.”
However, while bigotry and Northern Ireland’s history of sectarian divide undoubtedly plays a role in the violence and division, there is a wide range of social and economic issues which play a much larger part in the drama of riots that hit Belfast on a regular basis.
It is no coincidence that the riots often hit the most impoverished areas of the city, where opportunities for young people in particular are limited. Youth unemployment in Northern Ireland now sits at 22.3 per cent, higher than the UK average of 19.3 per cent. This is also a 16-year high, and reflects the growing problem of youth in Northern Ireland being increasingly isolated from society. The rioting in Carlisle Circus was not a spontaneous show of outrage against the cultural and religious, but rather an organised effort which was co-ordinated through social networks, and allegedly fuelled by the UVF – a loyalist paramilitary group. Children as young as three were seen throwing bricks at the police, and the Belfast Telegraph recently reported on a story about a young child who, scared by the mob of masked youths, was told by his mother to stop being such a baby.
The lack of opportunities for young people in these areas is as much of a cause to riot as sectarian tensions. The recent Belfast riots are comparable to last summer’s London riots, in that animosity towards the police and people with precious few opportunities had no other way to vent their feeling, and had precious little else to do. The only difference in Belfast is that youths have a ready-made, year-round excuse to riot, which is backed up by the seemingly unbridgeable political divide and tribal politics in Northern Ireland.
While both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, a left-wing republican party, say all the right things when trying to tackle the issues of religious and social divide in Northern Ireland, very little is being done to help the communities which are blighted by the problems – epitomised by the 40 peace walls which still divide people and create a range of social and economic problems. The recent allocation of £5.8m to help tackle the growing problem of NEETs (People not in employment, education or training) in Northern Ireland is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to replace working class sectarianism with opportunities for young people in these areas.
The real problem in Northern Ireland is the lack of a genuinely secular political party. All the main political parties have some take on the Republican-Unionist issue as the main thrust of their political philosophy, and this is reflected in the tribal voting patterns across the country. In the Strangford constituency where I am from, the Catholic parties don’t even field a candidate – it is considered a waste of money and resources due to the overwhelmingly Protestant population.
This pattern of petty tribalism is reflected in Stormont. The two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have made little real effort at reconciliation in the 14 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and their slow and divided response to the most recent riots in North Belfast was symptomatic of a larger problem of disagreement. Tellingly, Justice Minister David Ford was sent out to answer the media’s questions, showing that Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness had yet to agree a common line and appeal for calm. This is hardly surprising for two people on such opposite sides of the spectrum of Northern Irish politics, but surely they can both roundly condemn rioting against the police without coming to loggerheads? Easily done surely without unduly stoking the fire too much? All it takes is a short appearance and promising talks to solve the tensions. Even if the rhetoric is slightly empty, a show of unity in post-Good Friday Northern Ireland is surely essential. If they can’t do that, then what hope is there that the current crop of Northern Irish politicians will be able to solve the double edged sword that is poverty and sectarianism?
Without any significant dialogue which attempts to really deal with the problem, rather than trying to place blame on the Westminster appointed Parades Commission or others, there really is no hope for any progress in the foreseeable future. Mr Robinson signing a letter to the commission describing their rulings as “monstrous” misses the point – there is a more fundamental problem to be looked at.
This is indicative of the real problem in Northern Ireland at a political level. What the country needs is a political party who is willing to stand apart from the sectarian politics of Stormont and to stand on the basis of solving the real issues that are tearing the country apart – that of social inequality and a chronic lack of opportunities for young people. The country badly needs a choice that is based on tangible issues which affect the people of Northern Ireland rather than broad concepts of nationality that have no relevance to the socio-economic problems the country faces.
Until that happens, events like the upcoming Ulster Covenant celebrations on 29th September will continue to be a problem that has deep ramifications for the people of Northern Ireland, as the not-so-merry-go-round of violence keeps spinning.