By Simon Basketter
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Roots of riots in Northern Ireland

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
Four nights of rioting in Northern Ireland saw much media talk of "men of violence" orchestrating trouble.
Issue 2211

Four nights of rioting in Northern Ireland saw much media talk of “men of violence” orchestrating trouble.

What was neglected was the main spark of the violence – a brutal police attack on a peaceful protest against a march by the anti-Catholic Orange Order.

The Orange Order wanted to pass through the mainly nationalist Ardoyne area of North Belfast.

Riot police waded in as the protesters sat in the road chanting “peaceful protest” and wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Residents Not Dissidents”. Police fired 70 baton rounds and used water cannon.

It is worth noting the Northern Ireland state’s commitment to the right to march only goes one way. In 2001, primary school children saw their Catholic school, Holy Cross Primary, become the target of Loyalist bomb attacks and pickets purely because the route the children walked to school passed through a Loyalist area.

The school is in the Ardoyne. The pupils of 2001 are old enough to riot now.

Across Northern Ireland the rioting was concentrated in the areas that had seen the highest fatality rates during Britain’s war in Northern Ireland. These are also the areas that have gained the least from the peace, and they are all areas of severe poverty.

The Orange Order took to the streets across the North with the anti-Catholic triumphalism and sectarianism that has been its hallmark since its inception. This bigoted organisation should not be welcomed in Catholic or Protestant areas.

There has been an attempt to re-brand the marching season as “Orangefest”. Sashes and bowler hats have been joined by “Diamond Dan”, the Orange Order’s very own comic superhero.

Orangefest is marketed by Belfast businesses as “parades and shopping”.

But the reality is that the Orange Order promotes the idea of Protestant supremacy. There are hundreds of Orange parades during the marching season. On 12 July they light enormous bonfires, larger than houses, with Irish flags and similar symbols on the top.

This year in the Village area of Belfast a Palestinian flag was added to the bonfire – sectarianism with an international aspect.

Orangeism has supporters at the centre of the state. While only 3 percent of the population belongs to an Orange Lodge, 66 percent of all the Unionist members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are members.


Rather than oppose the Orange Order, the Nationalist party Sinn Fein wants to accommodate it within “community politics”. In the past, Sinn Fein organised protests against Orange marches.

Today it labels those protesting against the marches as “Republican dissidents” or “hoods”.

The history of Irish Republicanism shows that those who promote the armed struggle will tend to become establishment politicians by the end of their careers. All the dissidents offer is a re-run of that dead-end strategy.

But the roots of the riots are not dissident Republicans but poverty and sectarianism.

Some 90 percent of social housing estates in Northern Ireland are segregated. The peace process has done nothing to change this.

The number of “peace lines” (a euphemism for segregation walls) and “interface areas” (neighbourhoods where sectarian tensions and violence are high) has grown since 1998. Some 40 “peace lines” now separate communities.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein will not address the question of sectarianism because they are wedded to communalism on both sides. As the Tory cuts are implemented, they will play both communities against each other.

But there is also the possibility of united fights against cuts and sectarianism.

That’s why Sinn Fein and the bigots of the DUP are proposing the Public Assemblies Bill legislation on parades. It will require anyone planning a demonstration of more than 50 people to give 37 days notice, with failure to comply potentially leading to a prison sentence.

It won’t stop Orange marches but it is an attempt to stop protests against poverty.

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