Photos by the author
Mucker is 18 years old and he loves his country. He’d die for it. He’d kill for it. And that’s why, along with hundreds of others, he went onto the streets of Belfast in September and smashed a few blocks of his country to bits.
Shops were burned to the ground; a Christian center had its windows and roof busted up; traffic lights got some; taxis were hit; buses were torched; police and soldiers were bombed, burned, and shot at. Walls were torn down for concrete ammo, electricity substations were targeted to try and plunge the place into darkness, a bank was gutted to cause as much financial loss as possible. Armed with an arsenal of rocks, petrol bombs, blast bombs, paint bombs, pipe bombs, and good old gunfire, an army of loyalists brought Belfast to its knees.
At one stage some guys stole a steam shovel and flattened a trail of lampposts along a road. They went on to try and tear a hole-in-the-wall out of the wall, before cops managed to stop them. One local fella was shot in the neck by some maniac in the mob behind him. A crowd of pensioners were robbed when the church bus they were on was hijacked, emptied, and used as a burning roadblock. It was mayhem. No one had seen anything like it in many years. It was UK patriotism, Belfast-style.
Ferocious rioting for three nights ran up a bill of many millions, put 60 cops in hospital, and left politicians screaming at each other. As they raged, investors starting checking flight times and saying that maybe Northern Ireland actually is as awful as they feared it might have been in the first place.
And ever since, the same politicians have been looking for motives, telling each other why it happened and whose fault it all is.
But none of them have really been able to hit the nail on the head, to explain it so that a confused world can understand. “Don’t they have peace over there now?” some were asking. “I thought they’d stopped all that in Belfast,” they said. The answer? Not really.
If you want a straightforward explanation, try asking the people who were chucking the bricks. They’re able to spell it out in a way that an army of officials never could.
“It was brilliant,” said Mucker—not his real name—a part-time cook from the Lower Shankill, one of the toughest loyalist neighborhoods in the city.
“The Peelers [police] were parking up the Land Rovers right in front of us and calling us Orange Bastards and all egging us on.
“People were bringing us paint and bottles and petrol and all, just giving it to us. We were firing it at them. We started breaking down a wall then to use the bricks. We fired those at them too. It was brilliant, just trying to hit the fuckers.”
There’s no doubt about it—the police have never been as hated in loyalist areas as they are now, never received less loyalist sympathy for their sometimes nightmare jobs on the front line.
A little background might be helpful: loyalists like Mucker are Protestants, British by birth, British by the fact that they live in a part of the UK. They don’t like having, as they see it, their nationality or identity threatened.
Their traditional enemies are Catholics and, more accurately, republicans, who want Ireland united, who don’t want to be part of the UK, who are Irish by birth, Irish by the fact that they live in Ireland.
Both sides have spawned fearsome terrorist groups. Some Catholics formed the IRA and INLA to fight the British. Some Protestants formed the UDA and UVF to fight the IRA and INLA. Actually, they usually just ended up killing any Catholic they could get their hands on.
In days gone by, the police were seen as the Protestant police, formed and paid for by the UK state, tasked with fighting insurrection. More than 90 percent of the police were Protestant, and many Catholics never liked them, never trusted them, and often, it’s claimed, got beaten by them, and worse.
But that’s all changed now. The Good Friday Agreement lined up new rules, turning the old police force from the Royal Ulster Constabulary into the Police Service of Northern Ireland. These days the PSNI has a 50-50 recruitment policy to ensure that more Catholics get in. Not only that, but whatever good relations there had been with the loyalist community have gone completely and utterly down the pan.
A love of riots and a hatred of the police is an explosive cocktail. But the reason it all went nuclear this year, they say, is down to these three facts:
1. IRA bomber Sean Kelly killed nine Shankill Road people 12 years ago. He was released, along with all terrorists, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But Kelly was said to have got reinvolved and was caged again this year. But—and here’s the problem—he was let out again in July, just days before the IRA said it was standing down. Loyalists smell a rat, a political deal, an expedient insult to the memory of their dead.
2. Annual loyalist parades, made famous by the Drumcree marches of the 90s, are still being rerouted away from Catholic areas. Loyalists say these are political decisions, that their often militaristic, threatening parades are traditional and went on long before these areas became Catholic. Indeed it was the rerouting of this year’s local Whiterock Parade that kicked off the September riots and lifted the lid on a whole heap of grievances.
3. Since the Good Friday Agreement, loyalists say they’ve got almost nothing in terms of political and financial concessions and that republicans have got the lot.
In the Lower Shankill area, some teenage lads chat about Catholics, about the people who live, in some cases, just a few hundred yards away, beyond the battered steel walls that separate the Shankill from the Falls Road.
“They get everything,” says 16-year-old Stewarty, not his real name. “The Peelers won’t touch them now. They’re too afraid of them getting upset. They’re coming up here now stealing cars and housebreaking all the time and nothing is done.
“Then whenever anything happens here, the PSNI are in with the plastic bullets and shields and kicking the fuck out of people all round them.”
Across that angry week some 430 baton rounds—plastic bullets—were fired at loyalists. Stories of injuries are legion. A local paper has pictured men with their heads split open, a man blinded in one eye, a family who had their window smashed by an officer.
While smoking a plastic bong of harsh Northern Irish hash, Mucker says all the drugs in the area are sold on behalf of the paramilitaries, giving local confirmation that the UDA has long been involved in the drug trade. In fact, its criminal empire has sparked so much infighting between gangsters that they’re currently undergoing what is being called “housekeeping.” It’s the quaint term for expelling past members and, as this article was being written, even killing one—Jim Gray—who had grown too rich and knew too much in light of an ongoing police crackdown on loyalist gangs.
But Mucker has no problems with the UDA, certain that its sectarian heart is in the right place and that controlling the drug deals is part and parcel of controlling the area in today’s world.
“I support the UDA,” he says. “One hundred percent. Who else is going to do anything for us? The UDA is the only fucking way we can stand up for ourselves. Drugs have got nothing to do with it. I’d have fucking paid to riot.”
Mucker adds that the UDA called for calm after two nights of trouble, that it did publicly ask its members to “steer away from any acts of violence.”
“The UVF was the main one wanting the riots after that,” he says. “The UDA said that we’ve made the point here and that they didn’t want the place wrecked anymore. The UDA didn’t do anymore after that, but a lot of the young lads did.”
Much as they love their queen and country, their local paramilitaries, their drugs, and their riots, they all agree that growing up on the Shankill, an area renowned for its high unemployment and deprivation, can be soul-destroying.
“There’s nothing to do,” says Stewarty. “It’s shit. It’s good to be from the Shankill, but it’s shit living here.”
They all know men who have been killed, been forced out of the city or the country, men who have killed people, men who could be killed at any time. They all know teenagers who have been kneecapped, shot by the UDA for “antisocial” crimes against the community. They all believe that the Shankill is on the slide, and that everything and everyone is against them. They all confess to disliking Catholics, to hating the all-Ireland, UK-free philosophy and the IRA.
Even IRA decommissioning, completed at the end of September, doesn’t do anything for young men who are pledged to an organisation that claims it exists only to fight armed republicanism.
Mucker goes on: “Why? Do you believe them? I don’t. I don’t trust them. There’s no way they’d give up all the guns when we still have them. There’s no way the UDA will ever give them up. I wouldn’t want them to. No one would.”
What really jars with these guys are the words of Hugh Orde, the chief constable of the PSNI, who was furious at the ferocity of the riots, at the brutal, constant, potentially lethal attacks on his officers with bomb, brick, and even bullet. He called them “heroes,” saying the PSNI was involved in “world-class policing.”
“That is wank,” says Mucker, heads nodding all around him. “They drove up and parked there,” he claims, “just sat there in the Land Rovers giving us the finger. Heroes?”
Yet 60 Peelers ended up in hospital, 60 men and women out of a thousand who had come onto the fierce streets to defend a legal ruling that an exclusively Protestant parade could not pass Catholic homes.
Mucker laughs it off: “Wank,” he says again. “There’s no heroes in the PSNI.” And he warns: “They’re going to be hit again, so they are. They’ll get the message and so will the government. They won’t treat us like shit.”