Belfast riots renew calls for Protestant-Catholic dialogue

Young Protestants and Catholics in east Belfast clashed again Tuesday night in violence that appears to involve splinter paramilitary groups with murky aims.

Peter Morrison/AP
Loyalist rioters use fire bombs on Northern Ireland police officers in East Belfast, Northern Ireland, early Wednesday, June 22, 2011, as sectarian violence escalates into pitched street battles between Catholic and Protestant gangs and the police.

Rioting engulfed the Short Strand district of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday night, as pro-British loyalists and Irish republican residents of the area clashed for the second consecutive day.

Local police said that as many as 400 people participated in the violence and that a news photographer was wounded in a shooting in one of Belfast's most tense neighborhoods. In an effort to break up the fights, police fired at least 66 plastic bullets but made only one arrest: a young woman was detained on suspicion of possession of a firearm and assaulting police.

While police and locals blamed the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for sparking the violence on Monday and being involved in fighting last night, an unnamed dissident republican splinter group may be equally to blame in Tuesday's melee.

The violence has already led to calls for renewed dialogue between Protestant and Catholic groups, especially as it becomes evident that splinter paramilitary groups are trying to revive discord along political and religious lines.

“In the past there, we had an interface group where Short Strand community leaders would call me or someone else [and vice versa] if there was trouble brewing. I think there was a feeling from Sinn Féin that it was a policing responsibility – and I can see their point – but now we, on both sides of the community, want to see those structures reestablished. Similar initiatives are going on to resolve issues in other parts of Belfast," says Sammy Douglas, a local lawmaker with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who has worked as a community activist in east Belfast.

Marching season nears

Many local leaders say the spike in sectarian violence – coupled with the increasingly murky picture of which groups are involved – is especially troubling as Northern Ireland's always-tense "marching season" approaches.

“The main thing now is to ensure the violence stops before it gets inflamed,” says Mr. Douglas.

During the marching season, which reaches its high point on July 12 but continues until the end of August, the Protestant Orange Institution and associated groups – including bands named after loyalist paramilitary organizations – parade throughout Northern Ireland.

The parades, which republicans view as provocative displays of sectarianism but unionists see as expressions of British identity, have often ended in violence.

The paramilitary players

So far, there is no indication that the mainstream Provisional IRA (PIRA) has engaged in the fighting. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) confirmed the PIRA had disarmed by September 2005. And in 2009, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a body formed by the British and Irish governments, said the IRA’s leadership group known as the “army council” had disbanded.

Dissident groups formed by disaffected members of the PIRA and who remain committed to war include the Continuity IRA, founded in 1987 and the Real IRA, formed in 1997. A third group was formed from a split within the Real IRA in 2009, calling itself Óglaigh na hÉireann (the Gaelic name traditionally used by the various IRAs).

In the past two years, dissident republicans have killed two policemen and two British soldiers, the most recent killing being the car bombing of police officer Ronan Kerr in April 2011. Both groups have staged dozens of other actions including so-called "punishment shooting" vigilante actions against criminals and several failed bomb and gun attacks.

On the loyalist side of the conflict, matters are more confused. The UVF and the Ulster Defence Association were supposedly disarmed and disbanded.

But the IMC’s most recent report, issued in March, said the UVF was still active: “Notwithstanding the progress made in the past three years, the organization’s role in the murder of [member] Bobby Moffett calls into question the claim in the May 2007 statement that the UVF would become a civilian organization. We do not doubt the wish of the leadership to pursue the 2007 strategy though there are some within the organization who are evidently not ready to accept the restraints on their behavior which this means.”

Now, the UVF’s role in leading the recent riots suggests a power struggle within the paramilitary group.

A Protestant and unionist resident of east Belfast, who did not wish to be identified, said whatever progress was being made between republicans and unionists in high office needed to be replicated on the ground. “Neither the dissidents nor the UVF speak for the people. People were led into a false sense of security, thinking the weapons had gone away."

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