It is somewhat cliché to say that Belfast is a city divided. But nonetheless, the statement is true. If one were to view the city from an aerial perspective, the divide would be obvious. Gigantic, looming, and ironically-named ‘peace walls’ stand as prominent and ugly clefts across the cityscape. Communities exist as opposed and hostile territories where, in some cases, the safety of those from outside cannot be guaranteed. Religion, political ideology, and two diametrically-opposite forms of nationalism define and have defined civil relations in this city for decades – and the recent riots are not out of the blue.
Viewing the Belfast riots on TV, you cannot help but notice the dystopian imagery. Projected onto our TV screens are images of youths hurling rocks, petrol bombs, and abuse at police or their apparent mortal enemies of the other faith. Lines of police vehicles bear down on scattered rioters, masked and clad in black. Blaring loudspeakers robotically call for dispersal in that cutting and harsh Northern Irish timbre, which does little to calm or bring compassion to the situation.
This most recent bout of violence has been brewing since Good Friday (2 April), with Derry and other towns in Country Antrim also experiencing scenes of chaos. Sparked by loyalist anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol, these most recent riots could be the first of many. The Protocol, part of the Brexit arrangements, entails checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea – and not only undermines the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, but alienates the patriotic loyalists.
On the week beginning Sunday 4 April, the violence was intense. At the time of writing, over fifty police officers have been injured, property and vehicles have been set alight, and many nights were lit by the flames of petrol bombs and police cordons.
Flares of violence are centred around the peace walls. Located primarily around gateways in these walls (such as Lanark Way in Belfast), miniature pitched battles have occurred – with youths on both sides hurling rocks and other missiles at each other. Compared to the potential and feared involvement of paramilitary groups, such skirmishes are of less concern to the police. Internationally, these riots have sparked some headlines, but calls from Boris Johnson, the White House and Taoiseach Michael Martin did little to quell the violence, and it is doubtful that they would have pacified the rioters.
Northern Ireland is, of course, no stranger to such turmoil. Mercifully, these most recent riots have not seen the involvement of paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UNF) or the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Such groups are now little more than echoes of the forces which struck fear into the lives of so many in Ireland during The Troubles, or even during the civil war in the early 20th century. Yet their bloody legacy of clandestine, sectarian and – in the case of loyalist forces – state-sponsored terrorism lives on. It is this legacy that is making itself apparent on the streets of Belfast, but Brexit is the most recent catalyst.
Northern Ireland is one of many products of the British imperial past littering the planet
Northern Ireland, and historically Ireland itself, has been a thorn in the side of the British government for centuries. Once the most volatile of the Irish provinces, Ulster’s pacification took the form of a colonisation programme, planting Protestants from England and Scotland into Catholic communities. Turfing out these native Catholics, enclosing their land, and constructing a legal system that rendered them second-class citizens has led to the suffering of millions in Ireland. Such a legacy is most evidenced by the genocidal famine of the 1840s, where the massive loss of life was exacerbated by what nearly amounted to the extinction of a nation. In the 20th century, such divides were maintained, culminating in the British government ripping the country into two entities.
But in the minds of the current rioters, this matters little. The legacy of violence is somewhat of a footnote in the current story, and it is certainly not the main spur for the current violence, only its setting. Instead, poverty combined with ignorant and uncaring governance on both sides of the Irish Sea is responsible for the current predicament – and it doesn’t look like much will change.
The current generation was born in years of peace, where many proclaimed that the Good Friday Agreement had provided some much-needed balm to the sore which had been Northern Ireland. But such peace left a bitter taste in the mouths of loyalists and republicans alike – a taste exacerbated by poverty, a divided regional government, and an ex-colonial neighbour/landlord whose pursuit of Brexit has proven the distaste and ignorance held for Ireland’s history of sectarianism.
The government does not care, and has only served to undermine any efforts made by the Irish people themselves at peace
Northern Ireland is one of many products of the British imperial past littering the planet. Look at a map. Hong Kong, Iran, and Myanmar are among many still feeling its effects.
Our complacency and lack of concern over Northern Ireland betrays the fact that these are not considered problems by our government – and unfortunately, the damage has already been done. If Northern Ireland has still not been healed, there is no hope that concern will be raised elsewhere. However, healing can now occur at a different level: not at that of a nation, but at the individual level. We must learn and communicate about these problems, because as the case of Northern Ireland shows, the government does not care, and has only served to undermine any efforts made by the Irish people themselves at peace.