Future of peace shifts to unionists

  • 15 September 2005
  • test

The riots and the violence on the streets of Belfast are causing mayhem in communities and shifting the attention of the peace process to divided and embittered unionst parties and paramilitaries

As Belfast slowly returned to normality following one of the most sustained bouts of violence the city has seen in years, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) ceasefire and the loyalist communities, which bore the brunt of the riots, lie in tatters.

The trouble – which began on Saturday 10 September after an Orange Order parade was re-routed from a nationalist area of west Belfast, and maintained a ferocious pace until Tuesday night, 13 September – saw loyalist gunmen fire 115 shots and throw 146 blast bombs at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and British Army in a 72 hour period.

All week loyalist youths fought running battles with the police and army, throwing countless petrol bombs and bricks, bringing traffic in Belfast to a standstill and making loyalist housing estates no-go areas for the police in the process.

The scenes were a reminder of the power that loyalist paramilitaries can still exert, ten years after the peace process began.

As a result, Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable, accused the Orange Order of fomenting the riots at one of the most delicate points in Northern Ireland's history.

Almost inevitably, on Wednesday 14 September, the UVF's ceasefire was declared void by Northern Ireland's Secretary of State Peter Hain, leaving the group, and their political wing the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), outside the political pale for the immediate future.

PUP leader David Ervine admitted the decision was not surprising, but said it was "a tragedy". The Orange Order's leader, Robert Saulters, blamed the police, Peter Hain and the Parades Commission for the violence, but said his organisation was "blameless".

Unionist politicians echoed that view while making condemnations of the trouble, but with the caveat that "all of society bears responsibility", according to Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

The parade's re-routing provided a rallying point for a unionist community which has been disenchanted with the peace process since it began in 1994. Unionist political leaders have continually portrayed the peace process as a "slippery slope" to a united Ireland, fostering a perception amongst Protestants that they have been duped and abandoned by the British government.

Added to this has been a general down-turn in the economic fortunes of the Protestant working-class following the closure of the Harland and Wolff Shipyards; equality legislation designed to prevent unfair employment practices; and a perception that nationalists have reaped the social and economic benefits of the peace process.

On top of that for the past five years loyalist communities have been torn apart by a succession of paramilitary feuds which have left more than 30 Protestant men dead since early 2000.

The origins of those feuds – drug dealing – has exacted an even heavier price on working-class Protestant communities.

UUP MLA and senior Orangeman David McNarry says unionists are more fearful than ever.

"It was inevitable. This was sheer frustration that boiled over, you had people who normally you would expect to be law abiding who said 'we have had enough'.

"There is a whole range of reasons for this trouble, pointing the finger at the Orange Order will do no good," he said.

"I would question Tony Blair's commitment to Northern Ireland, he is no unionist. The British are neutral, we know that there is no guarantee for the union and that causes a lot of fear within our community, which is part of the reason why you seen the cry for justice over the past week.

"Unionists thought if they voted in the DUP in they would stop the slide, but we see that they aren't doing anything to stop the momentum.

"The poverty in working-class areas needs to be addressed also."

There is a common belief in Protestant areas that Catholics receive the lion's share of economic aid for community regeneration projects. That claim is denied by both Catholic community workers and the Department for Social Development, which allocates the funding.

The outbreak of loyalist violence comes at potentially the most ground-breaking time in North Ireland's history, following the IRA's pledge to decommission its arsenal.

At previous pivotal points in the North's history: the imposition of direct rule in 1972; the 1974 Sunningdale Power-Sharing Agreement; and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, unionist politicians have relied upon the muscle of loyalist paramilitaries to stall or avert political change.

Riots over re-routed Orange marches are not new either.

In 1996 the North was brought to a standstill when an Orange parade was banned from marching down the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown, Co Armagh.

For its part the UVF also had reasons to confront the PSNI. Before last weekend's parade, the UVF in the Wooddale area of north Belfast was blamed for orchestrating two days of riots against the PSNI.

The recent violence also detracted attention from the UVF's ongoing feud with the LVF which has left four men dead since the start of the summer.

Internally, the militant, non-political faction has gained the upper hand within the UVF.

In recent months the PUP leader David Ervine has admitted he no longer has the ear of the UVF.

The PSNI's role in the recent street violence in Belfast has been heavily criticised.

Unionists accused the police of using "heavy handed" tactics, while nationalists condemned the force for adopting a "hands off" approach to loyalist rioters.

On Thursday 15 September, unionist MPs met with Peter Hain to discuss ways forward for their community.

Internally, a series of meetings was called by community workers, loyalist representatives and the Orange Order to determine what their next step should be in the unfolding process. The UVF also met to discuss their options in the immediate future. The message from most was that they are eager to find a way out of the impasse but that huge problems remain within the unionist community.

The riots have, temporarily at least, halted the momentum of the peace process and placed the focus on unionism.p