The Troubles are over. So why is Northern Ireland still so unsettled?

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.

Peter Morrison/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

'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.

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