N. Ireland's summer of content
Community leaders have clamped down on the often-violent marching season.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — July and August are typically hair triggers for violence here in Northern Ireland. In these months, Protestants display their loyalty to the British crown through thousands of marching feet in thousands of parades.
Some of the parades unfold close to Catholic neighborhoods, where they are bitterly resented.
The result has typically been months of sectarian attacks, and murder across the dozens of brick-and-metal "peacelines" that divide Protestant and Catholic residential areas.
But this year - despite a shaky peace process here overall - has proved exceptional. Observers credit additional policing, changing political stakes, and the efforts of community leaders.
While individual attacks on Catholic churches, Orange Halls, Gaelic sports grounds, and vulnerable families have been reported, the level of violence is significantly lower than in the past.
The Orange Order parades (there are some 3,400 each summer) are officially about celebrating the history of Protestant communities. The biggest, on July 12, marks Protestant King William of Orange's battlefield victory over the Catholic-led forces of James II three centuries ago.
In practice, the parades often become violent symbols of which side of the community is stronger in this Protestant-majority state.
In Londonderry, Northern Ireland's second city, the number of overall sectarian attacks during the three-month period fell by 81 percent in its mainly Catholic western district - an improvement attributed to the efforts of community leaders on both sides. Police say violence directly related to loyalist parades in Derry (as it is widely known) also fell with petrol bombings, criminal damage, and assaults down 3 percent.
Police Chief Johnny McCarroll says that Derry could become a model for community relations if everyone does "not take their eye off the ball."
Overall, Northern Ireland's police figures record 109 shootings for June, July, and August of last year. So far this summer, the total is 48. There were 11 bombing incidents - compared to 52 last year. Gas bombs in particular dropped to 81 this year - almost two-thirds fewer than last. Politicians on both sides welcome the change.
"Credit must go to the young people and to community leaders who have worked tirelessly," says former Derry mayor Pat Ramsey, a member of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
In Belfast, days before the big July 12 Protestant march, for example, Catholic community leaders held public meetings and organized a round-the-clock community watch to ensure peaceful nights.
Willie Hay, a councilor representing the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Derry, agreed that the statistics are "great news" for everyone in the city.
Behind the statistics "are localized and more general reasons" for the lowered violence, says Peter Shirlow, senior lecturer in geography at the University of Ulster, and a specialist in street-level community relations.
The largest loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), he says, was anxious this year to avoid the police, who are turning their attentions to drug-dealing and racketeering activities. The new Assets Recovery Agency (ARA), an independent body with legal powers to seize unexplained cash from paramilitaries and other organized criminals, is proving a potent deterrent, he says.
"The ARA has concentrated minds, and the police have also been more effective recently, finding guns, pipe bombs, and arresting people who would otherwise have been involved in rioting," says Mr. Shirlow. "There's an overall sense within the UDA that there is nothing to be gained by street violence."
On the Catholic side, he says violence has always tended to be less orchestrated, more spontaneous, resulting from decisions on the routes of contentious loyalist marches and in response to political crises.
Sinn Fein, the political party affiliated with the Irish Republican Army, cannot turn off street violence in the way that the UDA can, he says.
But senior Sinn Fein activists have struggled to prevent young Catholics from becoming involved in rioting this year and have done whatever they can to reduce tension.
"Sinn Fein knows that a significant level of violence would have played right into the hands of those who want the peace process to fail," he says.
NEIL JARMAN, acting director for the independent Institute for Conflict Research in Belfast says that the UDA, always the most volatile of the two main Protestant loyalist paramilitary groups, was anxious this summer to keep a low profile. "The UDA wants to gain some electoral credibility within its own community and moved to keep its more militant elements under control."
In addition, he says, the reimprisonment of a former leading UDA dissident, Johnny Adair - known locally as "Mad Dog" - also helped keep the peace.
There are other, more practical, reasons for this year's relative calm. One is the informal mobile phone network, involving community workers on both sides of the "peace lines."
Jim Potts, a Protestant, and Rab McCallum, a Catholic, might be poles apart politically, but as holders of two mobile phones in the network, on either side of the peace line in troubled Ardoyne, north Belfast, they have worked together this summer to prevent violence.
If there was an incident - for example, a stone being thrown across the peace line - Mr. Potts and Mr. McCallum would immediately speak by phone and get out onto the streets to prevent an escalation into wider violence.
"Direct contact prevents rumor and misunderstandings spreading. We could deal with kids getting out of line before the big battalions got involved," says McCallum.
"We can't possibly be a 24-hour police force," he adds, "but we have managed to deal quickly with small incidents and prevented them [from] spiraling out of control."