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Northern Ireland riots raise worries about 'bad old days'

Northern Ireland riots continued for a fourth night Wednesday. While violence has been on the wane, protests erupted in Belfast after a Protestant march went through the republican Ardoyne area.

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Explanations for the violence are contradictory. Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin blamed dissident republicans and shadowy microgroups that oppose the peace accord.

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"The fact that significant rioting has continued in Belfast and elsewhere is evidence of sinister forces at work," Mr. Martin said. "To those misguided, would-be republicans who delude themselves into believing that an independent, united Irish Republic can still be achieved by violence, I say it's time to face up to reality. The war is over."

Sinn Féin and the Police Service of Northern Ireland also blamed dissidents for orchestrating the riots.

Rioters with time on their hands

Others pointed to more prosaic explanations. A local priest in Ardoyne, the area where the rioting has been concentrated, said the majority of rioters were children and youths with nothing better to do.

"It was a bit like a Euro Disney theme park for rioting. It was ludicrous,” he said.

Alban Maginness of the moderate republican SDLP and an assembly member for the area, says the background to the riots is complex.

“The official narrative that dissidents started it and ‘recreational rioting’ spread from that is true, up to a point,” he says. “But you have to ask yourself what motivates this.

“The reality is, marches are an emotive issue and violence is symptomatic of a wider division. This is one of the most polarized areas of Belfast: Catholics and Protestants live cheek-by-jowl here and we have never seriously addressed the issue of reconciliation,” he says.

Mr. Maginness says that despite condemnation from the governing Unionist DUP and republican Sinn Féin, the parties' actions inflame the situation by appealing to sectarian mind-sets even in peaceful political work.

“The people in charge here believe in conflict substitution," he says, "rather than conflict resolution.”