Published on 7 Jan 2013

Belfast riots: start with the geography, then follow the money

First, geography. Belfast is a city of flashpoints where loyalists and republican areas run up against each other – or are simply flashpoint areas in times of tension.

In loyalist Belfast: Sandy Row in the city centre, the Shankill Road district out west, the Antrim Road to the north, and Newtownards Rd to the east.

Now, the money – the economics. When you have known a little bit about these areas down the years, you know there’s not a great deal to distinguish them. They are all basically urban, working-class, post-industrial areas, once reliant on the shipbuilding and linen that put Belfast on the industrial world map.

In short, not a lot to choose between them.

So why is it that east Belfast should be the area of violence over the past month? Not solely, it’s true – but it’s the scene of by far the most trouble.

There are two factors that are critical.

First the UVF. The names are well-known, as is the belief that to some degree the loyalist paramilitary grouping is something of a renegade operation in the east.

The chief constable pointed to individuals from the UVF being involved in trouble on the streets. He also said the organisation as a whole is not directly involved – just its people in that area.

Specifically, it’s believed they are ensuring people gather at certain times in certain places and chuck a certain amount of petrol bombs and other objects at the riot police.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott has said: “Senior members of the UVF in east Belfast as individuals have been increasingly orchestrating some of this violence – that is utterly unacceptable and is being done for their own selfish motives.”

The second defining characteristic in the east is politics – specifically, a leaflet unionist parties put out blaming East Belfast MP Naomi Long for the flags issue. She is the Alliance MP who unseated the DUP’s Peter Robinson for this key loyalist seat.

As an MP – not city councillor – she had little at all to do with the council’s decision to limit the days the union flag flies over city hall. But she was fingered because her Alliance party held the balance of power which pushed the vote through city hall.

That was enough. Anything to get her out, reasoned unionists. Others say this was incendiary and lit the touch paper for trouble in the east. Peter Robinson, for one, has had to ask those on the streets to desist.

Of course, alienation from politics plays a part in loyalism, as it does in republican areas. Both sides get attacked by each other.

But in the east it is politics and paramilitaries as nowhere else.

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10 reader comments

  1. happytobeblue says:

    The loyalists are being pushed into a corner by the pan nationalist front they see that they get what they want through violence and the loyalists people are fed up , the republicans say it’s no big deal that the union flag is only flown on designated days , its only a flag , but why is it a big deal if it’s flown every day ? After all it’s only a flag! The brave ulstermen that charged the German machine guns at the somme died for a country that now betrays their grandchildren , the British government are cowards , I only hope for their sake they don’t need those ulstermen one day.

    1. Brenda says:

      Happytobeblue, my grand father fought alongside my great uncle at the Somme and both were injured..Both happened to be Catholic..and on return to Belfast they still faced discrimination from Unionists..Unionists that refused them jobs and housing and he maintained till the day he died that he fought to keep himself discriminated against by the people on who.s behalf he was fighting for.
      And as a nationalist i take offense to your assertion that the ” pan nationalist front” get what they want..In-case your unaware nationalists still have less than there unionist counterparts , i suggest you do a bit of investigation then come back and tell us what nationalists have that unionists do not.

    2. del says:

      When us Scots vote for independence there will be no Great Britain no UK.Yous are the remnants of an Empire that is fininished we dont want yous the Irish dont want yous no one does.Our grandfathers fought and died so that nations might be free meanwhile we enslaved over a third of the world.They tried to destroy Scottish and Irish culture they failed.If your culture is only based on a hatred of Catholics and being the “we are the people” then it is being eroded.Yes yous are people , no better or no worse than anyone else dont fear being equal get over it .

  2. AK says:

    Antrim road is a Nationalist area of North Belfast.

  3. John McNally says:

    2012 was not a loyalists most memorable year. Rangers F.C being demoted to the Third Division and the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall, has led to loyalists feeling the “other side” have the upper hand. All this, and more equal rights to nationalists have led to the tensions boiling over.

  4. S.B. BELFAST says:

    I think you have covered most bases here Alex but the elephant in the room which the British media has really failed to grasp is that many Unionists, even from the more affluent areas of the North of Ireland, still find it very difficult to accept Catholics as equals and are driven by a rabid, fundamental sectarianism that has been the lifeblood and DNA of the Northern Ireland statelet since 1921. The recent 2011 census figures have shown a drop in the Protestant population of 5% in 10 years since 2001 from 53% to 48% while the Catholic population is up to 45% and therein you have the reasons for most of this anarchy and violence. Unionists, who believed that their ‘Protestant Parliament For A Protestant People’ and supremacist position was forever written in stone are now confronted with their ultimate nightmare scenario looming i.e. A Catholic majority in the North, the prospect of losing their dominant role and the stark reality of a border poll on Irish unity.
    The flag issue in Belfast City Hall was, as you say, initially a DUP inspired tactic to get back the East Belfast Westminster seat from the Alliance Party but the fallout and negative publicity has backfired massively on the wider Unionist and Loyalist community as many in Britain, Ireland and around the world simply view their antics on flags as the actions of violent anarchists who won’t accept the democratic vote of constitutional politicans. UVF paramilitary elements have now taken control of the streets for their own sinister reasons while those Unionists opposed to powersharing in the first place have latched on to the flag issue to vent their own narrow, bigoted agenda and bring down the Stormont Executive. The two main Unionist parties are rapidly losing support and authority in their own districts and the Protestant community is totally divided, completely lost and devoid of any leadership whatsoever. Some of the language currently being used on Unionist/Loyalist websites and forums is crazy stuff. There is talk of Civil War; ethnic cleansing of Catholic areas to start; calls for Taigs (Catholics) to be attacked and killed at will and Loyalists to start pogroms against the Fenians (Catholics) again. The Irish News reported this hateful bile as their main front page lead in their newspaper last week.
    The last big battle, struggle, test (call it what you will) in Ireland was always going to be between Unionists and the British state as the prospect of a Catholic majority in the North came into sight and demographic figures show this could happen as early as 2017. Consequently Unionists and Loyalists are in panic mode as this date nears and are lashing out in all directions now at what they perceive as even the very slightest loss like the Union flag at Belfast City Hall. They are also buring their heads and ignoring reality; many Unionists and Loyalists still view Catholics as second class and refuse to accept or give them any recognition of their Irish Nationalist identity. You only have to look at the records of Unionist controlled local Councils where they still refuse to share power with Catholics and where Nationalist and Irish culture is effectively banned. The ‘We Are The People’ mentality is very much alive within Unionism and still drives most of their thinking and beliefs.
    The Northern Ireland state was an undemocratic, ill conceived political and economic failure right from the beginning and, like apartheid South Africa, is crumbling under it’s own foundations of injustice, gerrymandering and violent state control. The fear I have is that this situation will only get worse as Unionists now know that within 15 – 20 years they will be the minority in the North and there is nothing that can stop this. The census showed that the older Unionist population is dying off while Catholic schoolchildren now make up 53% of the school going population with Protestant children at 38%. Unfortunately the ingredients are there for another conflict and certain people are stirring this situation.
    As we head towards another marching season with this still going on, I and many others, are very concerned that social unrest between the two communities and serious violence on the 1968/69 scale could break out once again. That is how volatile and dangerous this place is at the moment and there is no doubt that David Cameron and Enda Kenny and their two administrations have taken their eye off the ball completely. The most sensible words I heard yesterday were Shaun Woodward’s, the former Labour Party Northern Ireland secretary. He said these current London and Dublin governments have virtually ignored the North of Ireland since they came into office and they must refocus or will all sleepwalk back into the abyss; how right he is.

    1. Daniel says:

      Excellent accessment Sir/Madame. I’m a 25 year old from Northern Ireland and i’m absolutely appalled and quite frankly scundered at whats going on.

      Having to explain to my foreign boss, who has only recently invested his company into Northern Ireland, what is going on is embarrassing. I honestly feel for Arlene Foster who is the investment minister, how can she encourage global businesses to invest in NI when all they see on the TV is riots and in their eyes a divided workforce?

      These idiots do not represent Northern Ireland or Unionists as a whole, if they did there would be a greater turn out to these illegal protests and riots. I don’t condone protests as everyone has the right to free will/speech but why hide your faces with scarfs? Why attack the Police? why burn an Irish Tricolour? Why attack the office of the party who came up with compromise with an impossible situation to suit both communities?

      A frustrated Citizen.

  5. Sane says:

    This a quote for the 2012 census “For the first time, statisticians have asked a question has been asked about national identity.
    Two-fifths (40%) had a British only national identity, a quarter (25%) had Irish only and just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only national identity.
    It is significant that while 45% of the population are Catholic, just 25% regard themselves as Irish only.”

    So lets stop the nationalist lies about the inevitable Irish unification. These figures show that people are not completely split down religious lines as in the past. they are disaffected with being used in a proxy war by both the U.K. and Ireland for hundreds of years. But if you asked me tomorrow if I wanted to join an even bigger economic basket case than the UK, where women are refused abortions even in cases of rape or danger to the life of the mother then I would say “no thanks”.
    But at the same time Northern Ireland has been failed by the U.K. Firstly by creating the troubles then failing to deal with them in a peaceful manner for umpteen years, this not to mention destroying the manufacturing heartland and overall economy of the country while sending troops to fight in illegal foreign wars to satisfy their American bosses.

  6. Iain McG says:

    Well said,Sir. You are,of course, 100% correct.

  7. anon says:

    Why not defuse the situation by banning all flags ? It may be too late but perhaps it is worth trying.

Comments are closed.