5:24 p.m. August 3, 2013

I Predict A Riot

The bricks are flying, the cops are dressed in black and people like me are rushing to Belfast to pretend to be oh-so-disappointed with the unruly natives, secretly delighted that there is something to report. Yes folks, the riot season is upon us again.

Walking to church has never been so hard – or controversial.

Let's start with some facts: On July 12, 2013, the climax of the Protestant "marching season" when fraternal organizations such as the Orange Order parade through the streets of every town in Northern Ireland before attending open-air religious services and political rallies, was marked by violent clashes with police.

A march in north Belfast was allowed to pass by an interface with a republican area in the morning, but denied permission to return in the evening. The decision was made by the Parades Commission, a state body set-up under the 1998 Belfast Agreement to regulate contentious political demonstrations. The Orange Order, the group hosting the parade, invited anyone who fancied a moan to come along and have a good old protest. And come they did, with protestors who normally wouldn't be anywhere near the place bussed-in.

The peaceful protest rapidly degenerated into un-peace—and it's all very, very tedious.

As a reporter I shouldn't feel like this. Riots really are newsworthy and I live and die by news, but, frankly, I am sick of this nonsense. Not just the riots, which are bad enough, but also the wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and, most of all, terrible nonsense that passes for analysis.

Let's be fair: it's not only one side that's fond of a ruck. In the summer of 2012 republicans rioted when loyalists marched around a Catholic church singing anti-Catholic songs. However, this year it really has been Orangefest when it comes to rioting.

The flag protests, which ran from December 2012 until May 2013, made international headlines, just like the bad old days. On December 3 Belfast City Council voted, narrowly, to stop flying the British union flag. The building was immediately stormed by protestors, decrying a republican plot to strip away every vestige of Britishness from Belfast.

In fact no civic or government building in Britain flies the Union flag 365 days a year. That would be rather gauche, don't you know… Flying the flag year round was Belfast City Council's way of annoying republicans, reminding them who was in charge. No-longer flying it was the republicans' reply that they were now.

Months of protests, and over a month of near nightly of violence, broke out, with embittered working class unionists—usually called loyalists—attacking police and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Peter Morrison, the local Associated Press photographer whose pictures routinely accompany my news reports in The Christian Science Monitor, was injured, struck by a police baton. Eighteen police were also injured, presumably not by press photographers.

Hilariously, this all came not long after a series of puff pieces in The Irish Times entitled "The New Northern Ireland" on how splendid the place was now. Spiffing.

At this point, this Dispatch is as much memoir as reportage, so forgive me if I am little light on direct quotes. They're in notebooks piled (no, not filed) away, but what maters here is setting the scene. The protests and street fighting have a tendency to meld into one big petrol-bomb and flag blancmange in my memory, but published reports from the time, mine and others, help me piece together a rough chronology.

On Saturday December 8, not long after the flag protests began, I find myself walking around Belfast city hall observing the protest. It's daytime so no-one is fighting, but there are a lot of angry young men with regulation short hair. The protest was scheduled and the turnout was impressive enough

I had quit smoking at the start of the year, but this day I temporarily took it up again. Sadly I could only smoke menthols as lack of practice meant regular cigarettes made me gag. I'd forgotten that menthols are marked out by a white filter tip, not helping me project the hard-man image I was after. Actually, who was I kidding anyway? I was wearing a suit and tie, a long black wooly coat, had floppy hair and was carrying a notepad. Blend in? I look like I've just been fired as an extra from His Girl Friday. Which is an improvement on "some taig from the Falls Road", more or less what I am.

I try to overhear snatches of conversation. It's not hard. People aren't so much flag-waving as flag wearing and they're not shy about expressing their opinions. Swearing is frequent, as is paranoia.

Later that night violence would erupt again, with crown loyalists again attacking the crown's police force.

Journalists have not, to be frank, covered themselves in glory when it comes to reporting on Northern Ireland. Irish journalists—and British ones when they can be bothered to notice the place—tend to hue to a line of "peace-processery": the bad old days are over, everything's coming-up roses, and when trouble breaks out it's the fault of a few knuckle-draggers inexplicably stuck in the past. Coverage of events, such as riots, is usually excellent. Analysis, not so much. Trapped by the logic of officialdom, reporters seem afraid to ask the awkward question: is the violence actually encouraged by the peace process itself?

Foreign journalists, meanwhile, are absent except when people are knocking lumps out of one-another and they have developed a mind-crunchingly dim habit of viewing it all through the prism of Islamic terrorism, as if all angry men with firearms are interchangeable and all conflicts are fundamentally incomprehensible.

I wander up the road to Shaftesbury Square, the scene of some of the previous night's widespread rioting, taking photographs of a burnt-out car and picking-over the debris. This is near where I lived when I went to college, and is precisely where I socialised. Memories of being hemmed-in by the British army flood back. They were marshaled to deal with fighting between unionist marchers and republican residents not far away on the Ormeau Road. The whole area, known as the Holy Lands due to street names like Palestine and Cairo Street, became a ghost town, save for the military and police.

Eventually I leave the scene, hailing a taxi. I couldn't drive my car; it has Republic of Ireland license plates and is made an even better target by having no roof. In the cab I call Peter Morrison, whom I've never met, to ask if he's OK, and then ask the driver if would take me to some of the flashpoints. A large amount of money changes hands and I'm soon looking at water cannon and police Land Rovers. We get turned away and I decide to call it a day. I'll come back later when the bricks are flying once more.

Speaking on the phone earlier to academic Peter Shirlow, who is far more sympathetic to loyalism than I am minded to be, he puts his finger precisely on the problem: “In unionism you have a romanticized view of the past: ‘There was this nice wee [little] place and then the IRA came along and wrecked it.’ Unionism is riddled with fear – the discourse is about future defeat.”

No-one knows how the future will pan out, whether republicans will attain their goal of a united Ireland, but unionist fears are unwarranted: for the first time in history, Irish republicans have agreed that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom until such time as the majority of people in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland alone, not the Republic of Ireland or Britain, want it to be otherwise.

This simple fact is what marks angry unionist protests out as farcical. For the foreseeable future anyway, and possibly forever if they play their cards right, unionists have won. And yet, they act as though they lost. Yes, belligerent murals painted on gable walls in east Belfast crow about defeating the IRA, but beneath the bravado there beats a heart racing with fear.

They won the war, but now feel their culture is under assault. Orange marches are looked down-upon, including by increasing numbers of middle class Protestants, and the union flag flies only eighteen days a year. It's almost as if the Ulstermen will have to start living like, well, the British…

*

Back in the present day, July's fights are not as grand as the flag riots. For a start, they're much more localized, effectively limited to the area around the banned parade with the occasional minor flare-up elsewhere. Children as young as 12 are joining-in, making for good copy and better photographs. I myself are more disturbed by grown men and women acting-out than I am by children, but there you have it.

Perhaps most interesting is the police response. Like it or not, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and yet the police response to street violence is unique. When English youth rioted in 2011—and looted, which never happens in Irish political riots—commentators criticized the police response. Right-leaning critics bemoaned the police were slow to intervene. Left-wing voices, meanwhile, complained that police were discussing using water cannon. Note discussing.

Things are rather different in Northern Ireland—and always have been. It's no secret that in the 1970s and 1980s the now defunct Royal Ulster Constabulary came down on Irish republicans like a hammer on an anvil. Say what you like about its replacement, the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland, but it's certainly more equal opportunities in its use of force. Water cannon were deployed immediately with a British police force spraying loyal subjects of the crown. Invite the cops to come along in Belfast and you're Wyatt Earp calling for a hose-down. Yee-haw!

Police also fired plastic bullets, though the force prefers the amazing euphemism "attenuated energy projectiles", a term so blandly descriptive it may as well be "mass traveling through time and space". This is unimaginable in Britain. If police fired a plastic bullet in London it wouldn't so much ricochet off a rioter's head as reverberate around the world.

Every time I hear the crack of one being fired I'm minded of an old civil rights document "Plastic bullets kill". Yes, they do. But lead ones do it so much more efficiently. Still, this is not a source of much wry amusement. Heavy-handed policing is not an isolated incident; it happens every time argy-bargy breaks out in Belfast. In an abstract sense one might want to question the police response. Certainly we should all oppose police brutality. The problem is, the whole thing has taken-on a theatrical bent. Not only is the timing of the rioting predictable, so are the locations.

One man jumped atop an armored police Land Rover and mimed masturbating at the massed ranks of riot cops. I say man and I mean man; this was not an adolescent, nor was it a late-developing twenty-something. Faced with such an onanistic scene, one that could act as a metaphor for the entire riot, it's very difficult to do the right thing, which is to speak of civil rights and how democratic societies should not have decisions about the legality of protests passed down from on-high by unaccountable bodies like the Parades Commission.

Come nightfall and things get more serious, with the Molotov cocktails flying. One police officer gets hit in the face with one. He's not the first person to be taken away in an ambulance.

On the first night Nigel Dodds, a local member of parliament for the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, was hosptialized after being brained by a brick flung by the very people he was there to support.

With every passing night of violence the contingent of foreign police drafted in from Britain increased. Initially 600 were requested in advance of the violence—and were scoffed at by many a soul who said there was no need—but by the time the trouble died down five days later 1,100 were on the scene. Between this and the G8, the overtime bill is going to be huge.

*

Like it or not, this is a clash of rights. Despite coming from a republican district myself and, frankly, being no fan of the Orange Order, their rights to freedom of association and freedom of assembly far outweigh local residents' right to not be discommoded by strangely dressed men playing bad music.

Opponents accuse the Orange Order of coat trailing, that is intentionally causing offense. The Order denies this, but what is the point of a Protestant fraternal organization if not rubbing defeat in the face of Catholics? Make no mistake, though, the fact that three century old military battles are still considered important is not a sign that everyone in Northern Ireland in insane. No-one outside the Order actually cares about the battles of the the Boyne and Aughrim. Probably few in the Order do. Instead the whole thing becomes a symbolic avatar for more recent political events, a simple zero-sum power struggle that dare not be admitted to because winning and losing are déclassé.

The republican side in particular deftly plays the human rights card, but unionists are catching-up fast. So fast, in fact, that facts just can't keep up. It's now common knowledge that Protestant east Belfast is even more deprived than republican west Belfast. This would come as a major turnaround and, of course, cause an existential shock to unionists. If it were true. It's not. Former MP for the area, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams pointed out that of the 40 most deprived wards in Northern Ireland, 36 are republican. This does rather beg a question as to what Gerry and chums are doing about it, but we'll leave that for the time being.

A survey conducted by charity campaign End Child Poverty in February 2013 claimed 43 per cent of children grow up in poverty in west Belfast. Charities do have a tendency to exaggerate, but west Belfast is undeniably poor. Joblessness is high, made worse by an awful lot of people being in receipt of disability benefits and genuinely convincing themselves they are too sick to work. It is a human scrapheap, one can only assume intentionally so.

None of which is to say working class unionists live in luxury. They don't. Unemployment is high now that the heavy industry they dominated is dead, drug-dealing is rife and the words "poverty of aspiration" stop sounding like typical political blather when you see just what east Belfast looks like. Little wonder that working class unionists think they deck is stacked against them: living in run-down housing projects, working a dead-end job if you're lucky, and having no contact with "the other side" is a toxic mix. One thing the 2012 to 2013 flag protests underscored is how much Belfast's city center now belongs to the cross-community middle class and, to a lesser extent, working class republicans. For some of the unionist protestors a trip to defend the flag at City Hall must have felt not unlike a holiday.

No serious action is being taken to change any of this. The money flows in, perhaps less of it since the economic crisis but it's still coming, and yet community relations continually get worse. Noblesse oblige doesn't cut it, and there is a good case for saying the way in which the money is doled-out makes thing worse. The victim-centered politics that now dominate Northern Ireland draw a direct line from deprivation, through rioting, to handouts to various community group boondoggles run by people with, shall we say, interesting backgrounds. Not every former gunman is a fraud seeking rent from the government, but plenty are, and even those who aren't are trapped by the logic of a peace settlement that actually settled nothing.

*

Back on the scene, on the evening of July 12 it's immediately clear that the Orange Order's credentials as a temperance organization are curious. Drink had obviously been flowing as freely as bricks were flying. Of course, the ritoers aren't the Orangemen themselves. But they never are, are they?

The measure of a riot is surely the depth of the grievance. The real test of any riot is simple: what is at stake? Riots in Northern Ireland are not meaningless, but they are exaggerated to the point of fraud.

It was intended as point-scoring, but on July 16 a unionist politician said perhaps the truest thing that anyone managed during the entire debacle. Speaking in the power-sharing assembly, local Ulster Unionist Party lawmaker Michael Copeland said to his Sinn Féin opponents: "Being Orange is as irish as a pint of Guinness. It's the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. You may not like it, but it's yours [culture] as much as it is ours."

He's right. In fact, the Orange Order is so Irish that British people can't even understand it. How could they? They dress-up as cartoons of English men, bowler hats and umbrellas and all, and march up the middle of the road, followed by shiny button-happy fifer-boys, to celebrate a military victory no-one else remembers and then go to a religious service in a field. That's about as British as Gerry Adams.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. The situation in Northern Ireland, if it was analyzed properly, could put the lie to several poisonous ideas in political discourse across the world today.

First off, there's the nagging question of "victim blaming". Well, sometimes the victims are to blame. One can be both a victim and an aggressor. More importantly, the entire concept mistakes causation for correlation and is little more than an attempt to shut down debate. Here's who is to blame for the most recent rioting in Belfast: the same people being hosed-down by the police. In a wider sense, republicans need to stop "pushing the Prods" and rediscover what republicanism means (and it sure as hell means putting-up with people you don't much like), but the Orange Order didn't have to call a protest that would inevitably turn into a beered-up barney.

Every time there's a riot in Northern Ireland both parties claim not only to be the victim of themuns, but also that their opponents, in denying them due recognition, are engaging in victim blaming. Round and around it goes; what else can circular logic do?

Secondly, the annual rioting over nothing unmasks the ugly twins of identity politics and multiculturalism. Someone wins and someone loses. That's how wars work. Or, at least, it's how they used to work. Today conflicts are increasingly set in amber as cultural battles that always end-up in petty squabbles over which side is the most oppressed. And, of course, oppression can only be dealt with by flooding the place in cash. Keeping both sides separate-but-equal—and don't kid yourself, that is precisely what multiculturalism means—not only encourages introspection, it artificially props-up what would otherwise be the losing side in a conflict meaning a settlement is never actually reached.

Readers will have to forgive me for quoting myself: "In Northern Ireland during the 1980s the paramilitaries engaged in tit-for-tat shootings, these days the guns are largely silent but these self-imposed community representatives are engaged in tit-for-tat culture-making, and culture is all the worse for it. “The taigs get a couple of grand for basket-weaving in Irish? We want cash for women’s mural-painting in Ulster Scots."

I wrote that in a fit of pique some years ago. In the intervening time it has only got worse.

In Northern Ireland no-one won and no-one lost. The long game is still being played, with demographics pitched against accommodationism: young republicans, like their counterparts in Québec, no longer routinely face discrimination in jobs, education and housing, so unionist hopes are that republicanism will, like Québec sovereignty, simply fade away even though nominal Catholics will soon outnumber Protestants.

In the meantime the real losers are the working class, divided into sectarian boxes—that take on material reality in the form of horrible, segregated public housing schemes—that are extremely difficult to escape and encouraged to take pride in a degenerate culture that is hostile to any of the real republican values that once promised to unite them.

The annual July riots are an embarrassing spectacle, and not because of misplaced liberal snootiness. I grew-up in west Belfast and though my parents owning a car and a house was unusual enough, I'm not exactly Lord Muck. In fact, go back two generations and my family are genuine muck savages from Leitrim. No, they're embarrassing because they cement Northern Ireland's difference, not only internally, but externally in relation to both the Republic of Ireland and Britain. Northern Ireland is a place apart, kept at arm's length, to be tolerated at best and bribed into quietude the rest of the time.

Unionists claim Sinn Féin is playing at culture wars. They're right. But they are doing precisely the same thing themselves. Sublimating a question of national sovereignty into expressions of cultural identity and allegiance couldn't but be divisive. And unlike politics, it may even be unending.

Whenever I speak to protesting loyalists I always get the same answers, the same inchoate rage: "They don't respect our culture," the always say.

Again, they are right—after a fashion.

These kinds of demands for recognition are senseless: what would the outcome be if non-unionists did "respect" Orangeism? What does respect even mean?

I don't have to like Orange marches. I'm not even supposed to, and the occasionally trotted-out pretense of somehow transforming them into a "cross-community" and tourist-friendly Orangefest is, frankly, unwelcome. All I have to do is ignore them. Alas, this simple message appears to be lost on republicans, who just can't help but push the Prods a bit more.

The very same state that once openly persecuted republicans is now, they think, tamed. On one level they too are right: Northern Ireland is far from the Orange State it once was. On the other hand, there is something deeply disturbing, to me at least, about people who were once beaten-down by the police using the cops and the law to stop others from marching. Schadenfreude is a poor stand-in for politics.

We've seen this play out before. The absence of a million obstreperous Protestants, most of them Calvinists and thus the original dissenters, is what allowed politics in the Republic of Ireland to degenerate from republicanism to Catholic nationalism. Sixty years of repression and reaction followed—on both sides of the border.

No-one is living-up to their ideals here. The republicans are short on civic virtue and the unionists are swearing fealty to a crown that has no interest in them.

Here's a prediction you can take to the bank: summer 2014 will see rioting in Belfast.