Belfast riots expose old wounds that may never heal

A loyalist mural in Belfast
Photo by Louise Brown

A metal gate on Lanark Way, in West Belfast 17 metres wide and three metres tall was last week the focus of the worst violence witnessed in Belfast for years. It’s part of the so-called peace wall that separates the loyalist Shankill Road and nationalist Springfield Road. It’s one of 70 such structures across Northern Ireland designed to protect and separate. With these permanent structures still in place 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed can there ever be any real hope that the divisions in the community can ever be healed?

According to RTE: “For many protestant and loyalist communities in Belfast, these permanent structures are viewed like Derry’s much older defensive walls, as a bulwark against an invading green tide. The city has a growing catholic population, while the protestant population is declining. Catholic West Belfast is densely populated with a growing younger population, while on the Protestant side of the walls the population density is lower and the age profile older.” 

The growing debates around the Northern Ireland Protocol and a possible border poll have added to loyalist concerns and insecurity.  Fears over the border checks, the decision not to prosecute 24 members of Sinn Fein who attended a funeral in Belfast during the height of the Covid-19 lockdown have all added to tensions. But do not be mistaken the one subject that has tensions at boiling point is Brexit and the betrayal the loyalist community feels at the moment.

 The recent rioting was bad, the petrol bombs, stone strowing and the use of water cannon grabbed headlines all-round the word, but it’s important to remember that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA ) only ended the daily cycle of terrorism  principally on the streets of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland  and on mainland England. The deep-seated division, distrust and hatred between the two communities didn’t end immediately. It was the start of a healing process. It’s all the more troubling that the current violence was carried out by young people, some aged just 13/14 born after the GFA was signed. Egged on potentially by parents with some added influence from criminal or paramilitary figures, the rioting exploded onto the streets of Belfast and elsewhere including Derry

The gate between Falls Road and Shankhill Road in Belfast
Photo by Louise Brown

The cause and solutions are complex and a solution looks as faraway now as peace did during the height of the troubles. However, peace was achieved by exceptionally brave enlightened politicians who had a vision and desire to create the right environment.  These included the principle architect John Hume MP , the Northern Ireland Secretary  Mo Mowlem , Tony Blair , George Mitchell and others. My concern is that our politicians in Westminster and Belfast in 2021 may not be up to the case .

Do we have that type of calibre of politician now, like those who brokered the GFA  23 years ago? I fear not. Today we have politicians who look for the next opportunity for them to exploit.  The desire for the UK to leave Europe and in essence throw the people of Northern Ireland under a bus was acceptable collateral damage. Northern Ireland is geographically separate from mainland Britain and British politicians have exploited this fact. It’s a small part of the United Kingdom but voted by 56% to 44% to remain in the EU. Promises made by Johnson were in fact barefaced lies but the unionist community put their faith and money into his Brexit dream and his deceit won the day.

The civil rights campaigner, Emma De Souza, wrote in the Irish Times in December 2020. that segregated education still dominates the school system in Northern Ireland. A survey reported in the piece revealed a disparity between which period of history is being taught in Northern Ireland’s secondary schools divided down religious lines. Emma argues that education remains a wholly underutilised tool, in tackling sectarianism. This does beg the question about just how much healing has been achieved in the last 23 years.

Can we really have any hope for lasting peace in Ireland?  Currently I am not optimistic. This week’s rioting may be a foretaste of what it will be like over the summer months as the marching seasons gets into full swing with its symbolic marches of banners, music, flags and celebration of each side’s culture and traditions These will involve hundreds if not thousands in each one, depending on the location and dates. Many of the routes straddles the streets associated with the other community and this is when the flare ups and violence has happened in the past. 

It’s my opinion that the only hope for lasting peace will come with a United Ireland by consent of all the communities but to achieve this we need massive political change and realism. We need politicians of vision, strength, character and steadfastness to achieve this. It took great risks, courage, time, trust endless negotiations compromises and in the end a shared desire for peace to get the GFA signed. It will take a long time to negotiate a United Ireland but Brexit has accelerated the thinking around this. The party who has done the most to bring this back to the fore is the hard-line loyalist DUP led by Arlene Foster but It will be this party who will lead the opposition to it.

Who will be leaders who will take up this United Ireland challenge?  I don’t see any at the moment but I have some encouragement that support for the DUP and UUP is in decline with voters shifting to the more moderate Alliance Party. This political party has seven seats in the Northern Ireland assembly but was third in the regional share of the vote from the 2019 elections. 

In the meantime, the Johnson Government has rejected calls for urgent talks in Belfast with the Irish government. When there is a political vacuum, it is criminals and   terrorists who exploit the lack of leadership.

I wonder what John Hume would say of the current situation if he was alive today. He would I am sure keep his own counsel and get stuck in and do whatever it takes to get a solution.  Below are some of his words. He received the Nobel prize for his work in securing the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998 , the greatest peace agreement since the second world war.

“All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality… Difference is an accident of birth, and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace — respect for diversity.”

I had the pleasure of meeting John Hume when I was involved in politics in Ireland during the height of the troubles in the summer of 1981  John Hume RIP – North East Bylines

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