Peace shattered by Belfast unrest

Protestant parade sparks three nights of violence

After two months of peace, violence returns to Belfast

September 13, 2005|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - After hundreds of hard-line Protestants armed with gasoline bombs, homemade grenades and automatic weapons waged battle against police and British soldiers, Belfast seemed devoid yesterday of the peace that supposedly arrived in Northern Ireland two months ago.

Carcasses of scores of charred vehicles were on Belfast streets while blackened shells of burned-out buildings still smoldered from the violence that began Saturday after a parade by Protestants. Hijacked cars that had been rigged to speed driverless and aflame into police stations stood gutted where they stopped.

The unrest continued yesterday, first with dozens of Protestants blocking intersections during the evening rush hour and then with fire bombings of police stations.

Nearly 2,000 police officers and soldiers stood prepared for the possibility of even greater violence.

Northern Ireland and British officials said the violence that enveloped the heart of Belfast and several other nearby cities was a predictable act of desperation by a small minority who can see no way to profit from peace.

The violence was a sign not of the unraveling of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and other accords that have brought relative peace to Northern Ireland, they said, but in some ways signified the success of negotiations.

IRA pledge

The Irish Republican Army, the Catholic group so long associated with the type of violence that began Saturday in Belfast and spread to villages beyond, announced in July that it was laying down its arms, and since then not a single act of violence has been attributed to its members.

"It's just that lack of fighting that brings out the insecurity in segments of the Protestant community," said Dominic Bryan, a professor of Irish Studies at the Queen's University of Belfast. "Their feeling becomes that if the IRA has stopped fighting, the Catholics must be winning something and the Protestants must be losing something."

Most of those involved in the clashes were from Belfast housing projects, police said, which are home to some of Northern Ireland's most desperately poor.

More than 40 people were injured, including about a dozen police officers, some of whom video footage showed with uniforms ignited by the gasoline bombs.

The scale of the riots seemed to take police by surprise, but nobody had expected the IRA's announcement would mean an end to every potential skirmish in Northern Ireland.

The group agreed in July to destroy its weapons only after Catholics abandoned it by the scores, satisfied that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was their best bet at equality as Northern Ireland's religious minority.

With peace afoot, the violence began Saturday during a parade of the Orange Order, one of the least compromising Protestant groups, made up of anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 people. Its members wear bright orange sashes during public events such as Saturday's parade, but many of them are also believed to be members of shadowy Protestant groups that were long ago outlawed for their violence.

The Orange Order's march is a traditional show of hard-line Protestant defiance and an annual source of skirmishes with the residents of the predominantly Catholic neighborhoods where marchers have insisted on walking.

Warning on violence

When a commission created years ago to regulate such parades decided earlier this month to re-route the march, the Rev. Ian Paisley - the leading Protestant politician in Northern Ireland, who now leads the far-right ruling Democratic Ulster Party - said violence would be a certainty, a statement many took as a call to arms but which he insists was a helpful warning.

The commission re-routed the march by only about 70 yards, to avoid a corner that had become a flashpoint for violence in past years.

Yesterday, Paisley criticized the violence of the marchers.

"They've played right into the hands of the IRA," he said. "Nobody could justify what has been done."

That such extreme violence would follow such a minor alteration of a parade route was evidence of what Miles Hewstone, a professor of social psychology at Oxford University, refers to as a reaction to a "symbolic threat."

"These people who rioted are people who have never been integrated enough into society," he said. "Now they see themselves as forgotten again and see this threat of power going to the Catholics."

Peter Hain, the British secretary for Northern Ireland, seemed intent on casting the violence in anything but political terms.

"This is a moment of choice for everybody," he said yesterday. "Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of law and order, applied fairly and equally to every citizen? Or are you against law and order, siding with those firing bullets at the police, throwing petrol bombs and blast bombs at police and attacking them?"

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