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Why Belfast exploded

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
The riots in Northern Ireland had sectarian elements, but also laid bare the poverty the peace process has ignored, writes Goretti Horgan
Issue 1969
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

The ferocity of the recent loyalist riots in Belfast astounded commentators, but came as no surprise to anyone who lives or works in Protestant working class areas.

The riots began as part of an attempt by loyalist paramilitaries to take attention away from their bloody feuds and their frequent attacks on Catholic homes in many parts of the North. But having begun for reactionary reasons, the riots quickly showed a passion and fury that suggested deeply felt injustice.

It is important to start by pointing to the horrific level of sectarian attacks that have been seen over the summer months—Catholic churches vandalised, Catholic schools and even integrated schools burnt, homes petrol bombed and windows put in.

The bit of the Springfield Road that the Orange Order were so determined to march down has been the site of trouble before. The only reason they want so much to go down it is to assert their “superiority” over the Catholic residents.

So what is behind the dam-burst of anger on the streets of Belfast? Look at where the worst of the rioting was — in North and West Belfast.

The area is part of the two square miles where most people (both Catholic and Protestant) killed in the course of the Troubles died. It is also the poorest part of the North.

The riots were most fierce in the areas that suffered most in the course of the Troubles but have gained least in the course of the peace. Any examination of inequalities in the North shows a growing gap between the rich and the rest. Now 47 percent of households living in poverty are Protestant, 48 percent are Catholic.

Because there are more Protestant households than Catholic, this is an over-representation of Catholic households. In fact 36 percent of Catholic households are in poverty compared to 25 percent of Protestant households.

While the gap between the number of poor Protestants and poor Catholics is narrowing, the gap between the rich and the poor within the Protestant community and within the Catholic community is widening.

Northern Ireland is the most unequal part of these islands. The top quarter of wage earners here takes home nine times the money of the bottom quarter. Some people, particularly those in the “business community” (where religion doesn’t seem to matter) have done very well indeed from the peace process.

While Protestant workers have done better than Catholics — historically “tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence” — whatever edge they had is being eroded by the kind of economic development pushed by all the political parties, from Sinn Fein to Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

In joining the global race to the bottom, encouraging privatisation of public services and the transfer of public sector workers to the private sector, they have cheered on a growing low wage economy.

It used to be that Protestant workers could get a job for life in one of Belfast’s heavy industries. These jobs have now gone.

An East Belfast youth leader says, “Things have been building up since 1998. I think the biggest is this sense that people think the government has let them down while the middle class of unionism has effectively pulled up the ladder behind them and ignored what is happening here.”

There is a similar sense of abandonment in many poor Catholic areas, reflected in young people from the Bogside and Gobnascale attacking Protestant homes in the Fountain and Irish Street. If young people look around their area and see poverty and hopelessness, they are going to look for someone to blame.

The way politics and, increasingly, society in Northern Ireland is organised, makes it seem “common sense” to blame “the other side”. Sectarian politicians on both sides point at “the other side”, the better to stop anyone looking at the growing inequality within their “own” community.

The result is that often the poorest in each community attack each other while the well off move to the leafy suburbs.

If things are left to the powers that be, there is unlikely to be much change.

The British government has handed over several army bases to the “community” for regeneration.

But because of all the political parties’ acceptance of New Labour privatisation, the community these sites are going to is the business community.

There were vicious sectarian elements to the loyalist riots. But there were also real elements of class anger.

A digger was hijacked from an East Belfast site and used to ram a cash machine. One bank was burned to the ground, as were the offices of the DUP’s Sammy Wilson in East Belfast and Nigel Dodds in Newtownabbey.

The brightest sign of hope is the growing realisation of working class people, both Protestant and Catholic, that things are equally bad on “the other side”. This has come through particularly in the campaign against water charges. It is in the fight against privatisation and the race to the bottom that this consciousness can be built on.

Goretti Horgan is the chair of the Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network. She writes in a personal capacity.

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