New protests, same 'troubles' as riots roil Belfast

A government ban on a parade organized by pro-British unionists has opened old wounds about national identity in Northern Ireland.

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
People walk past a burnt out car on the shore road after the police came under attack from Loyalists throwing petrol bombs on the fourth night of unrest after an Orange Parade was blocked from marching past the Nationalist Ardoyne area in North Belfast July 16.

Four nights of violent disorder in Northern Ireland that were sparked after a Protestant parade was banned from marching through a Catholic part of north Belfast have injured 71 police and several bystanders.

The July 12 parade is the high-point of Northern Ireland's so-called "marching season," when Protestant fraternal organizations such as the Orange Order take to the streets to celebrate old military victories.

The parades celebrate the defeat of Catholic uprisings following Britain's 1688 "Glorious Revolution" and are an annual phenomenon across Northern Ireland, with 550 on July 12 alone. Although only a handful are contentious, they have been a source of conflict since the foundation of Northern Ireland as a state in 1920, and continue to punctuate still simmering cultural tensions between Irish republicans and pro-British unionists.

The controversy erupted this week after the government Parades Commission ruled that marchers could pass through a heavily republican area of the city in the morning, but could not return for a second demonstration there in the evening. Unionists complained this amounted to state-sanctioned discrimination.

To hit back at the commission, the Orange Order called for a protest at the location of the banned parade in the neighborhood of Ardoyne. From there, the conflict escalated. Protestors have thrown bricks, petrol bombs, improvised "blast bombs," and nail bombs at police, who responded with water canons and plastic bullets. Some 1,000 police have been brought in from Britain to contain the situation. 

The conflagration was predictable. As previously reported by The Christian Science Monitor, street violence continues in Northern Ireland despite a fifteen year peace process and power-sharing governing assembly. There is a sense that every street fight in Northern Ireland is gleefully reported by the international press, but after a year of on-again, off-again rioting it is impossible to deny that every territorial scuffle has the potential to incite full-scale rioting

Speaking in the Westminster Parliament Tuesday, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers was firm in her condemnation of the riots. "We will not tolerate lawlessness on the streets of Belfast any more than we would tolerate it in any other UK city," she said. 

The Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled Tuesday for a debate on the violence. In the end, a motion criticizing the Parades Commission's decision to place restrictions on the parade as "illogical" was passed by 43 votes to 42. Further violence is expected tonight.

Speaking in the Assembly today, Gerry Kelly, Ardoyne lawmaker for the Sinn Féin party, said the commission didn't have Irish republican motives. "There is no republican war on the cultural identity of Britishness," said Mr. Kelly, who represents the major republican political party. 

Alban McGuinness, lawmaker with the moderate republican Social Democratic and Labor Party, described the decision to allow the march in the morning but not in the evening as "a compromise."  

Unionists disagree, with many claiming there is a republican-inspired "culture war" underway. Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, spoke of fears of a political design that will see "every trace, vestige of Britishness … removed, bit by bit." 

The disorder in north Belfast is now an annualized ritual. This year's violence was unionist, as were the "flag protests" of 2012 and 2013, but last July's violence in north Belfast was as much republican, leading unionists to claim republican violence is rewarded with concessions. The turn-about has caused some embarrassment for unionists – traditionally seen as law-and-order parties – but unionist politicians insist that institutions are stacked against them. 

Nelson McCausland, an assembly member for the Democratic Unionist Party, the leading pro-British party in Northern Ireland, said that "after 150 years the Parades Commission has de facto banned" unionists from marching. "Previous commissions were bad, but this is the worst ever," he said, describing the ruling as an attack on Protestants. 

His view is shared by senior Orangeman and minister at Westbourne Presbyterian Church, Mervyn Gibson, who himself stands accused of stoking trouble. (He denies the charge). 

Reverend Gibson says that while a regulatory body is needed to manage parades, the current commission is unwilling to give unionists fair consideration. 
"What it comes down to is they [republicans] don't want the parade – full stop," he says. "All the routes that are disputed are main arterial routes. The assumption is the parade is to offend, but the parade is to get from A to B."

Newton Emerson, a commentator noted for his wry take on Northern Irish politics, says blame lies entirely with the Orange Order, who organized the initial protest. "It's totally bonkers, totally off on one; [there was] clear incitement and now they're refusing to accept any responsibility," he says. 

Both Sinn Féin and dissident republican groups called off their counter-protests in advance of the parade. Mr. Emerson says that the Orange Order's "blood-curdling speeches" and busing of protestors to the frontline precipitated the conflict. He also says abstract arguments about the rights of protestors miss the point.

"You can't sort out all of Northern Ireland's problems with a rights discourse," he says. "There is no legal right to protest – it's inferred from the right to free expression and free assembly. No society puts those above public order. A rights argument is fashionable nonsense."

But Mick Fealty, an Irish nationalist who runs the Slugger O'Toole political blog, says republicans also bear some responsibility. Sinn Féin reaches out to unionists only to settle immediate disputes, not to win hearts and minds, he says. 

"The truth is, civic republicanism needs to engage unionists as part of the [Irish] nation," he says. "There is no way to a united Ireland without the active participation of people who consider themselves to be unionists." 

Ulster Unionist Party lawmaker Michael Copeland made a similar point speaking in the assembly today.

"Being Orange is as Irish as a pint of Guinness," he said. "It's the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. You may not like it, but it's [your culture] as much as it is ours." 

But Mr. Fealty says the Orange Order's tactics of protesting are self-defeating."If you're an Orangeman you [need to] pull your horns in and ask 'how can we replace this [Parades Commission]?' We tried battering it and that hasn't worked," he says.

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