For three nights last week parts of Belfast indulged in what has too often seemed to be the city’s favourite pastime: civil disorder. Confrontations between groups of mainly Protestant youths and the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) left more than 60 policemen and women injured and another stain on Belfast’s steadily recovering reputation. The violence was sparked by a republican parade in North Belfast that passed near a Protestant area, despite restrictions placed on a number of loyalist parades by the regulatory body, the Parades Commission. Tensions had been high since riots during the Orange Order’s annual ‘Twelfth’ celebrations in July, an event that commemorates the victory of the Protestant William III (‘King Billy’) over the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
To the outside world the disputes over parading that occasioned the latest round of violence were depressingly familiar. Unionists continue to defend their right to celebrate their culture and to express their identity – a right, incidentally, enshrined in the peace agreement that brought the violence largely to an end in 1998. Irish nationalists, on the other hand, object to the expression of a culture that usually involves a rather ostentatious celebration of the ascendency of the Protestant tradition in Ireland; Catholics were openly discriminated against until as recently as 1972. The tensions are, for the most part, kept in check by the Parades Commission’s oversight, aided by, it should be acknowledged, the work of the Orange Order itself and numerous individuals working within and across both communities to build bridges during the summer marching season. Nevertheless, such endeavour is still often fatally undermined by sectarian elements at the fringes.
The episode reminded me of an exchange I had in a class I taught a while ago which included a number of younger members of the Orange Order, one of whom asked me with all sincerity and good intent how the Order could negotiate with those ‘who just aren’t rational’. The inquirer recounted the story of a Catholic woman in a mainly Protestant town who ran a restaurant, who had wanted to keep the restaurant open during a loyalist parade to supply the marchers. But then unhappy with a perceived lack of solidarity, other Catholics forced her into closing the shop in protest against the march.
The broader point of the question was that there is an undeniable logic and (whisper it quietly) rationality at the heart of the unionist community’s current discontent. As the demography of urban centres in Northern Ireland changes (much of inner Belfast, for example, has become nationalist territory) marches are increasingly being restricted, or at least re-routed from the ‘traditional’ arterial routes. For many unionists this feels like a gradual erosion of their cultural identity, a fear compounded by thirty years of republican violence, the anachronistic methods and rhetoric of dissident republicans, and Britain’s studious and disinterested neutrality. Unionists are all too aware that, if they could manage it without violence, most politicians in Britain would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow (a fact never seemingly grasped by dissident republicans).
And yet anyone who has scratched beneath the surface in Northern Ireland, will know that what counts as ‘rational’ is itself contested. For those who uphold the sacred virtues of the Catholic Church and/or the political integrity of a united Ireland, it is not at all ‘irrational’ to resist displays of symbols and gestures that celebrate the ascendency of the Protestant religion. Such triumphalism, for some Catholics, recalls the state-sanctioned discrimination of Carson and Craigavon and the brutality and violence of the state’s security forces and paramilitary proxies. Rationality, in other words, rather depends on where you’re standing, and in whose shoes.
This clash of opposing ‘rationalities’ forms the backdrop to the latest unrest, preserving segregated landscapes and providing regular points in the calendar for the outpouring of frustration. But to really understand what drives this frustration, we need to look beyond political and cultural causes, to a number of broader macro and micro issues. A couple of these myriad causes are particularly salient.
Firstly, while the posturing of the political class doesn’t help, we should remember that politicians, after all, are duty-bound to faithfully represent their electorate. Reconciliatory rhetoric in a society that still votes in sectarian blocks is rarely a vote-winning strategy. In reflecting on De Tocqueville’s admonition that ‘in democracy we get the government we deserve’, we should acknowledge that Northern Ireland’s political graveyard is littered with headstones recalling politicians – such as David Trimble, or John Hume – who paid the political price for leading their communities into uncomfortable, but ultimately progressive new ground.
Nevertheless, we should certainly acknowledge the culpability of those politicians and high-profile community activists who regularly use their media profiles to wail and gnash teeth from the rarefied heights of the (over-crowded) moral high ground. Regular finger-pointing (‘whatabouterry’) and the self-pitying narratives from loyalist leaders have reflected – but also hardened – the despair in loyalist communities, often creating self-fulfilling litanies of hopelessness which foster the paranoia and isolation upon which the civil unrest feeds.
Secondly, it would be wrong to overlook the continuing legacy of the conflict. Among the rioters were a number of members of the loyalist paramilitary organisations, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association. While there is significant evidence that these groups have committed to peace, the broad fracturing of the loyalist community into disparate tribal factions has long made it hard for the leadership of either organisation to control individuals at the extremist fringe. Some analysts contend these are former prisoners struggling to find new meaning, to come to terms with the ghosts of the past or the economic implications of a criminal record. For the cynics, however, the organisations are themselves complicit in the disorder, wanting either to attract European peace funding to the affected areas, or to retain status, influence and relevance in the community. The reality is probably all of the above, and a bit more besides.
Which leads, thirdly, to the recent comments made by the Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, who urged politicians to address the economic and mental state of the communities at the heart of the disorder. Here we might finally draw away from a media obsession with the political and cultural divide long enough to attend to the damaging social divides. There are numerous (and growing) inequalities within many working-class communities in Northern Ireland (in health and education, to name just two) that collectively sap aspiration, fuel discontent and ultimately inhibit the rioters from developing a stake in mainstream society. The riots in London last year demonstrated just how destructive social isolation can be, even without the existence of gaping political divides.
Finding solutions, in conclusion, is no straightforward task. The years of violence have made it hard to walk in others’ shoes long enough to find the humanity in what seems extreme. To finish, perhaps, where I started: ultimately the plasticity of our understanding of what is and what isn’t ‘rational’ means that dismissing those we don’t understand as irrational represents, in reality, a failure of imagination. More than just an intellectual exercise, resisting this temptation would be a bold, inventive step towards ending the summers of communal violence in Northern Ireland.