New protests, same ‘troubles’ as riots roil Belfast
By Jason Walsh, CS Monitor, July 16, 2013
Dublin, Ireland—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.
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.
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."