Opinion UK

The Northern Ireland Problem: Culture, Class & Conflict in Belfast

In a turn of events seemingly destined to be repeated ad aeternum, on the night of April 2nd major rioting broke out in the Sandy Row area of South Belfast. The unrest saw Ulster Loyalists attacking the PSNI with various projectiles including but not limited to: bricks, bottles, fireworks and petrol bombs. Eight arrests were made, all of whom were aged between 13 and 25.

The following day similar disturbances broke out in Newtownabbey and Derry, where a nursing home was attacked. By the 5th active riots were taking place nightly in Belfast, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus with smaller violent demonstrations in Portadown, Ballymena and Markethill. Escalation continued, and on the 7th a bus was hijacked and set alight by Loyalist youth and a journalist was assaulted. The Peace Line – a barrier separating predominantly Republican and Loyalist communities in Belfast – was lit by handmade explosives and petrol bombs thrown from both sides. On the same night The Ulster Volunteer Force (a Loyalist paramilitary organisation) ordered Catholic families removed from a predominantly Protestant housing estate in a “form of 21st-century ethnic cleansing”. On the 12th, yesterday evening at time of writing, a burning car was left on the rail line between Belfast and Derry.

The British media, in a very British manner, cite the circus games of Johnson’s Government as the main cause of the unrest. Journalists and politicians alike, both in the mainland U.K and Northern Ireland, have taken the opportunity to use the events as a battering ram to lambast the Northern Ireland Protocol and make petty political points. However, as has been the case with each resurgence of unrest in Ulster, the causes are multitude, historic, and complex.

Northern Ireland is the second most deprived province in the United Kingdom. The inner-city housing estates around which these riots often centre feature some of the lowest educational attainment levels in the North, with a long-lasting and increasingly redundant reliance on labour work. High social deprivation factors fuel crime and paramilitary activity, and lack of social and political influence have led to an acute resentment of the Peace Process, as ongoing levels of poverty substantiate the perception that Republican Catholic communities have been better served by the Good Friday Agreement.

In these communities it is therefore hardly surprising that sinister militant organisations have been able to exploit an overarching sentiment of powerlessness among the young people residing in these areas to maintain civil unrest. Senior members of paramilitary organisations including The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association (an organisation that once called for a genocide of Catholics in the North ) have been able to perpetuate a myth among these youth of these communities that they remain the last bastions of Protestant Loyalism in the North, their rural counterparts having grown more economically dependent on their Catholic Nationalist neighbours. The reaction among these young people, those actually throwing the petrol bombs, is not to the alien prospect of a hard border in the Irish sea. The reaction is to the narrative fed to them, the same narrative that was fed to them five, fifteen, and thirty years ago. They are led to believe their culture and national identity is at risk and are given a purpose in its violent defence. With the annual Loyalist marching season approaching ( July 1st – last Saturday in August ) and bringing with it the usual accompanying wave of sectarian tension, it is almost certain more young people will become involved and the violence will escalate further.

The past few months have seen the Loyalist Communities Council- an umbrella organisation for Loyalist paramilitary groups – withdraw support for the Good Friday Agreement and threaten to kill a port worker in Larne over the Irish Sea Border; Loyalist First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP publicly demand the PSNI Chief Constable’s resignation over the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians after they breached COVID-19 Restrictions to attend the funeral of former IRA head of intelligence Bobby Storey; and numerous illicit drug raids conducted on Loyalist Paramilitary organisations.

So when notoriously sectarian, sexist, racist, homophobic, climate change denying Loyalist politician Sammy Wilson called for “guerrilla warfare” in early March it was not a metaphor, it was a call to arms. The Northern Irish Peace Process is fragile and requires active intersectional work in the form of policy change and socio-economic development. Politicians in Westminster will continue to ignore this and their counterparts in Stormont will continue to act to its detriment, so long as their ignorance continues to get them elected.

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