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.
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Saturday will see another contentious march, this time by pro-British unionists commemorating the 1912 signing of the Ulster Covenant that swore to oppose Irish Home Rule, eventually leading to the formation of the 100,000 strong Ulster Volunteers armed group. The Orange Order estimates the parade will involve 25,000 to 30,000 marchers. The Parades Commission this week ordered that no loyalist supporters accompany the parade as it passes St. Patrick's church, and that a planned nationalist protest at the church be limited to no more than 150 people.Skip to next paragraph
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'Almost street theater'
But many observers of the violence contend that it is not the result of spontaneous outrage, but rather is deliberate, almost formalized cultural chest-thumping.
Pauline Hadaway, who runs the Belfast Exposed photographic gallery in Donegall Street less than a mile from the rioting, says the September confrontation was easy to ignore and appeared staged.
"We work down the bottom of the street from this flashpoint and you'd not notice it. It's a real set-piece conflict, almost like a piece of street theater."
Ms. Hadaway, who is originally from England and holds political and social discussions in the gallery, says if similar outbursts of street fighting had occurred in parts of Britain, it would be treated as a simple, if extreme, matter of law and order – not as signs of cultural conflict. She says the now annual Belfast disturbances cannot be compared to the widespread rioting in England last year.
"Effectively you have to go out of your way to be offended. It's a drama without an audience and it's so predictable. It has none of the shock value of the London and Manchester riots last year," she says.
But North Belfast resident and writer Daniel Jewesbury argues that some will nonetheless make sure to be offended. "One thing the Orange Order said that is true is that there are some groups who are dedicated to taking offense, but on the the other hand there are some who are dedicated to giving it," he says.
He also questions the idea that the rioting genuinely represents widespread feeling on the ground – though he acknowledges that it is a popular conception among the rioters.
"There's still a sense that, despite everyone knowing it's staged, both sides expect community support" from their own cultural group, as the protesters feel they are acting for their respective communities, Mr. Jewesbury says. "This is the direct result of the peace process. It's the way this strange architecture of peace is constructed."
Malachi O'Doherty, one of Northern Ireland's best-known authors, fears a potential return to widespread violence, particularly if a republican is killed during a riot, something that could bolster support for dissident republicans opposed to power-sharing.
"The Troubles had gone on for far, far too long. I think even Sinn Féin and the IRA saw that. Are the ingredients there that could bring it back on the same scale as before? I very much doubt it. But are the ingredients there to lead to more killings, including of innocent people? I think so."
And Mr. O'Doherty echoes the sentiment that the rioting is orchestrated, rather than spontaneous. "The fact that the rioting switched off as soon as the talks started shows it's being managed by somebody. There are two solutions to that: find out who that person is and find out what their price is, or find out who that person is and put them in jail for a long time."
O'Doherty notes the escalation of tension, if not necessarily the violence itself, may have a tactical basis.
"The DUP certainly regards it as a culture war: conflict by other means. I don't know who first viewed it this way, but maybe it [explains] the fact that otherwise they [the DUP and Sinn Féin] are so close to each other," noting how the parties work together in government despite representing distinct electorates locked into a seemingly permanent face-off.