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The Troubles are over. So why is Northern Ireland still so unsettled? (+video)

Amid riots this summer by both loyalists and republicans, and with fears of more to come Saturday, some say the peace process itself has formalized seasonal violence.

By Correspondent / September 28, 2012

Masked loyalists gather before they attack police in North Belfast, Northern Ireland, Sunday, Sept. 2. A number of police were injured during a night of clashes. The violence came after unrest at marches in the area the previous weekend.

Peter Morrison/AP

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Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Dublin, Ireland

In 1998, after 29 years of bloody civil conflict, Northern Ireland was euphoric: Peace had finally been achieved. A political process, however difficult, was underway and the guns fell silent.

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The guns have remained largely silent since. But street violence continues, particularly during the summer months of the so-called "marching season," when various groups, predominantly pro-British unionists, take to the streets of Northern Ireland to parade, sometimes resulting in violent clashes. This past summer was no exception, with several instances of rioting in North Belfast, and more feared due to a contentious unionist parade due on Saturday.

Despite a power-sharing accord between the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and republican party Sinn Féin, all sides involved in the recent disturbances feel aggrieved, leaving many in the North wondering what happened to promises of a "New Northern Ireland" and why are things still so unsettled.

Even among many who are glad that the Troubles have ended, blame is beginning to point toward the structure of the peace process itself, specifically how it attempted to defuse the conflict into a culture war. While the Troubles' zero-sum political conflict – between the competing ideas of a united Ireland and a United Kingdom – has ended, what remains is a split between nationalist and unionist, Irish and British, where the divide isn't healed, but rather is reinforced annually.

"There is a cultural space for rioting in the Northern Ireland calendar," says Paddy Hoey, a former journalist who is completing his PhD thesis in the literature of dissident Irish republicanism at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies. He says that the unrest in interface areas – places where republican and loyalist communities abut – is a "result of the vacuum of the peace process."

While the political battle has left the streets and entered the halls of government in Northern Ireland, the Troubles' one-time fighters still remain in control of their districts as "community representatives," Mr. Hoey says. That leaves them in position to wage the cultural war through annual parades and protests, but without being held to account if the events devolve into riots.

"It's a manifestation of social control by people who were able to act with tacit impunity," he says.

Marches and riots

This summer has been no exception to the cycle of cultural conflict. Marches by the Orange Order and Royal Black Institution, both Protestant fraternal organizations, erupted into violence on July 12 and Aug. 25 when a marching band named Young Conway Volunteers marched outside St. Patrick's Catholic church in Donegall Street.

On July 12, the band stopped outside the church and played an anti-Catholic tune named "The Famine Song," which spurred reactive protests that turned violent later that night in the republican Ardoyne district.

The Parades Commission, the statutory body which sanctions marches, banned Young Conway Volunteers from the Aug. 25 march, but the group flouted the ban, spurring a further series of disturbances by republican protesters.

Loyalists have rioted as well. Only yards away from Donegall Street, a republican march commemorating 18th century republican Henry Joy McCracken resulted in three consecutive nights of violence from Sept. 3 to 5, with loyalists attacking police with stones, bricks, and fireworks in objection to the march. Police fired plastic bullets in response.

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