A loyalist protester, whose sign reads, "Our only crime is loyalty!!!" at Friday's republican march in Belfast.
Northern Ireland's loyalists are pissed off. On Friday night they injured more than 50 cops, who—after adopting slightly softer tactics earlier this year when policing the flag protests and the Belfast Twelfth—were out in force to monitor a republican parade.
The parade was taking place for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to mark the introduction of new internment laws in Northern Ireland in 1971, when the British government decided to round up hundreds of people they suspected of being IRA terrorists and hold them in prisons indefinitely without trial. The parade's second aim was to protest against the ongoing treatment of republicans by the security services.
However, with Royal Avenue—where the march was supposed to pass through—blocked by loyalists before the event even started, republicans were bizarrely redirected through an interface with the loyalist Shankhill Road. Missiles were briefly exchanged, but the republican demo was eventually guided through, leaving the loyalists to vent their rage on the gathered police forces.
The republican march passing through Belfast.
But what was it that brought the men whose "only crime is loyalty" and occasionally lobbing masonry at police lines out onto the streets once again?
For Belfast's loyalists, Friday's anger was Pavlovian: republicans were marching, so it must be an IRA march. In their eyes, this march was something that by its very existence was insulting murdered Protestants and had to be stopped. Worse still, the march was given no restrictions by the Parades Commission, who, just a month ago, prevented the loyalist Orange Order from marching home through nationalist Ardoyne, leading to a week of rioting.
Considering this to be a show of pro-republican favoritism on the police's part, staunch loyalists, who are ready to jump on any opportunity to show that they're the biggest victims in the six counties, got a little riled up. This comes in the context of Alex Salmond trying his best to break up the union and Sinn Fein showing increasing electoral confidence on both sides of the border, making the community that prides itself on being "more British than the British" feel increasingly abandoned by the mainland.
Loyalist protesters being held back by riot police.
Marginalized working-class Protestants, who make up the grassroots of loyalist culture and the core element of the street fighters, feel they are looked down upon by mainstream unionists and constantly undermined by concessions to Irish nationalists. Their incoherent rage is mocked by republicans, middle-class Protestants, and handwringers appealing for an abstract social peace. All of these things fueled the anger that manifested itself on Friday. When Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt turned up to mediate, he was spotted talking to police, attacked with a half brick by the very people he purports to represent and forced to leave.
Another factor likely to have aggravated the loyalists was the presence of members from "dissident" groups like the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32CSM), Republican Sinn Fein, and the Republican Network for Unity (RNU). Those three groups are the largest in Northern Ireland to oppose the peace process and support a continued war against British forces. March organizer Dee Fennelly told me the night before the march that, while dissidents would be in attendance, it wasn't intended as a dissident march.
Police using a water cannon on the loyalist protesters.
Dee is a republican and a member of a group called the Anti Internment League, who claim that the police are using “internment by remand”—arresting republican activists on charges that will never stick and taking them off the streets for two years while they await trial. It’s a highly emotive topic for republicans. Internment was used throughout the 20th century on both sides of the border to imprison men without trial. It was always counterproductive and the IRA harnessed public animosity towards the tactic to the extent that it became their most effective recruitment tool.
The republican march.
One recent case highlighted by the march is that of Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton, both serving life sentences for the Continuity IRA murder of a policeman. They are now appealing the charges in a case that has seen police use covert surveillance against witnesses and the pair's defence counsel claim that Northern Irish police (PSNI) are attempting to sabotage their appeal.
Gerry Conlon—who, as a member of the Guildford Four, spent 15 years in prison for an IRA crime he didn't commit—has spoken in support of the pair, saying, “It was appalling that two men could be sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a policeman on so little evidence.”
A sign held up by a loyalist protester.
Unfortunately, Friday's riots have drowned out the chance for any proper discussion around justice in the new Northern Ireland. Both sides claim to be the real victims of prejudicial policing, with a member of the 32CSM stating that their march descended into violence after the PSNI blocked "the rally for extended periods of time, giving the loyalist protesters opportunity to launch attacks on the marchers."
But after police injuries stole the headlines, it's unlikely that anyone's going to pay much attention to a debate about the state of policing in Northern Ireland 12 years after the rebranding of the RUC to the PSNI, or ask whether the pace of change has been quick enough.
For the dissidents, nothing short of a united Ireland is acceptable, and their fight is likely to continue. The loyalists, on the other hand, may struggle to find a seat at the table when US diplomat Richard Haass chairs talks this autumn to look at how far things have come since the Good Friday Agreement, and if they get one they may not like what they hear.
Will all that in mind, progress remains slow in Ulster, and we'll undoubtedly be back on the streets of Belfast next August to witness another summer of intense recreational rioting.
Topics: Belfast, Northern Ireland, dissidents, Loyalists, republicans, 32CSM, PSNI, clashes, riots, water cannon, baton rounds, internment, internment without trial, 1971, IRA, Real IRA, Orange Order, Sinn Fein, peace process, Good Friday Agreement