Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Sectarian hurricane rips through Belfast

Jarlath Kearney:

Ireland’s second city was yesterday recovering from a vicious hurricane of highly organised political and sectarian violence which exploded during the last 72 hours – ostensibly because of a re-routed Orange Order march.

While Belfast (or most of it) still stands, the peace process must now weather the long-term implications of the strategic storm currently being whipped up in the wider unionist community.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Sir Reg Empey claimed the widespread disorder in Belfast city and Co Antrim during the weekend was “a throwback to the 1970s”.

“Not since then have I seen such behaviour,” Sir Reg commented.

The UUP leader was talking after unionist gunfire was exchanged with the PSNI and British army; after unionist mobs invaded nationalist areas in the Grosvenor Road, in Ligoniel, in Ahoghill village and elsewhere; after unionist attacks on Catholic churches, homes and businesses; after a savage anti-Catholic assault that left a man fighting for his life in hospital; after orchestrated Orange Order street protests; after unionist political and civic leaders stood shoulder-to-shoulder with paramilitaries; after Belfast was swamped by a torrential sectarian downpour.

Of course if Sir Reg had asked – and more importantly listened to – any republican, nationalist or Catholic in Co Antrim recently, then he would have better understood the comtemptuous import of his comment. In comparing the weekend’s violence with three decades ago, instead of setting it in the context of the last three months or the last three weeks, Sir Reg demonstrated a striking lack of affinity with those terrorised Catholic communities.

Sir Reg also commented yesterday that the orchestrated violence from within the unionist community was, in part, a by-product of the recent activities of republicans and the British government.

“There has been a build up of resentment that... republicans are seen to influence government by threatening force and getting rewarded for their efforts,” Sir Reg claimed.

In a final catch-all Sir Reg said while there could be no excuse for violence, “everybody has to take some of the blame” and the job now is to “analyse what went wrong”.

“Why did communities that are normally peaceful and law-abiding erupt in such an astonishing way?” Sir Reg questioned.

In the context of the virtual pogrom against the entire Catholic community over recent months, Sir Reg’s argument that the unionist communities which erupted “are normally peaceful and law-abiding”, will not be universally accepted.

Moreover, the violence emanating from the unionist community has actually intensified – not abated – since the IRA publicly announced an end to its armed campaign on July 28.

It is also notable that the UUP leader yesterday described the disposition of republicans as “threatening”, particularly when recent republican actions include ending the IRA’s armed campaign, completing the process of putting arms beyond use and committing to the peaceful pursuit of Irish unity.

However, it is clear that such a reactionary mentality within the unionist political leadership also feeds into a wider base sectarianism which pervades large sections of the unionist community.

Such sectarianism is starkly evidenced by the continued refusal of leading unionists to engage politically with the Sinn Féin leadership despite – or more likely because of – the latter’s position as the largest pro-Good Friday Agreement party in the North.

The weekend’s unionist violence was preceded last Thursday by assurances in Belfast from Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern that the Irish govenment is serious about defending the rights of its citizens in the North.

Those comments came just hours after President Mary McAleese publicly embraced the most senior UDA/UFF member in south Belfast.

During his meeting with SDLP members from across the North last Thursday, Dermot Ahern heard first-hand accounts of “escalating” unionist and loyalist violence.

In the wake of the weekend’s onslaught, Ballymena councillor Declan O’Loan, who had met Mr Ahern, commented: “The events of yesterday (Saturday) and last night call into question the entire behaviour of the unionist political sector. There needs to be a thorough government response to that.”

During a separate meeting with a senior Sinn Féin delegation last Thursday, Mr Ahern heard significant concern about the failure by both the Irish and British governments to address unionist violence.

Assembly member Gerry Kelly, who met Mr Ahern, said yesterday that both the Democratic Unionist Party and the UUP need to demonstrate “leadership which is compatible with the peace process”.

“We have unionist leaders creating a vacuum by refusing to talk to other political representatives such as Sinn Féin. Ian Paisley, who is now the head man in unionism, needs to do something about this,” Mr Kelly said.

The DUP leader Ian Paisley echoed Sir Reg Empey’s line. Mr Paisley attributed difficulties in the unionist community to the actions of republicans and the British government.

“I am convinced that a shoddy deal between the goverment and the IRA is now in place and there will soon be an attempt to make people believe that the IRA is peaceful and democratic and that they have given up all their arms. We will have none of it,” Mr Paisley said.

Reg Empey claimed yesterday that the British government “knew on Friday that there was going to be serious violence coming from paramilitary elements”.

“The police knew this also,” Mr Empey added.

Given that both the DUP and UUP openly sit on various committees and forums with leading paramilitaries, both parties now have a finger on the pulse of all elements of unionism.

However, both parties are concurrently refusing to recognise the democratic imperative of respecting Sinn Féin’s substantial mandate, through, for instance, direct dialogue or shared government in the North.

That is the societal context within which the current anti-Catholic sectarian campaign is festering.

While there is no question of Ian Paisley or Reg Empey engaging in violence, both the DUP and UUP alluded in advance to the prospect of serious disturbances over the weekend.

It is significant that both parties jointly voiced such predictions to the British government, the PSNI and the media beforehand.

The historic role of elements within the British government – such as the NIO, army intelligence and PSNI/RUC Special Branch – in strategically fomenting the activities of unionist paramilitaries is well documented.

Given that role, it is perhaps even more instructive that unionist paramilitary activity has incrementally intensified over the last three months.

With unionist political parties now predicting an almighty deluge against the final implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, could it be that there are just as many rainmakers within unionist civic, political and policing circles – such as the NIO and Special Branch – as there are within the knuckle-dragging ranks of unionist paramilitarism?

Police arrest 63 after violence

What will emerge out of the ashes?

Leaders keeping unionists in fear


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