Belfast clashes: nationalist ire or ‘recreational violence’?

Clashes between nationalist rioters and police dragged on for a fourth consecutive day in Belfast on Wednesday, with protesters throwing rocks, concrete slabs and petrol bombs at police, who responded with rubber bullets and water cannons. 82 police officers were injured in the violence.

Unrest often erupts in Northern Ireland during the province’s marching season, when Protestant marchers – who favour continued British rule  – pass through areas populated by Catholics to commemorate Prince William of Orange’s July 12, 1690 victory over the Catholic King James II. Catholics, who are generally opposed to rule from London, view the marches as a deliberate provocation.

While in previous years authorities blamed terrorist groups like the Real IRA [Irish Republican Army] for the riots, Northern Ireland police chief Matt Baggott described this year’s unrest as “recreational violence with a sinister twinge” perpetrated by a small group of troublemakers.

Even though violence flares up recurrently at this time of year, there has been a significant change in the motivation behind the riots since last year. In the past, terrorist groups like the real IRA were clearly pulling the strings. This year, although there may be a few IRA rioters, most of the violence is occurring at the hands of a relatively small group of young troublemakers with no overt political motivation. Old IRA leaders used to have the power to direct the protesters, to turn the violence on or off. This year, though, their influence on the troublemakers is virtually inexistent.

These youths, (children, really – some are no more than 8 or 9 years old!) seem to be using the Orange Order parade as an excuse to perpetrate criminal actions. The question is: why do these children think it is ok to go out in the street and throw stones or petrol bombs at police? It’s clearly now a social problem more than a political or constitutional one. The rioters are mostly youths from low-income, socially isolated backgrounds, and the parade is just the spark that sets off their anger and frustration.

That being said, the Orange Order is being unnecessarily stubborn and provocative by refusing to cut out Catholic residential neighbourhoods from their parade’s route. They either don’t see, or refuse to see, that their attitude is extremely offensive to the citizens of these areas. The youths perceive this as disrespectful, and this sentiment is as the heart of their anger and violence.

Finally, it’s worth noting that police behaviour in the face of this year’s violence has been very responsible, showing great restraint and caution. There have clearly been positive steps made in terms of the policing of these incidents, but backwards steps in terms of understanding and addressing the motivations behind the violence. Globally, this year’s protests mark a serious social setback for Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole.”

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