Focus: One man's riot is another man's peace process

David McKittrick reports on Northern Ireland's simultaneous war and peace amid fears of a long, hot summer of discontent
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The Independent Online

A highly desirable five bedroom house is currently for sale in Belfast, although the fact that it sits solidly in the notoriously violent north might well put off any buyers from outside the city.

A highly desirable five bedroom house is currently for sale in Belfast, although the fact that it sits solidly in the notoriously violent north might well put off any buyers from outside the city.

The house is just a short drive from Holy Cross Primary School, scene of last year's ugly confrontations. Half a mile away is Whitewell, where sectarian rioting is almost a weekly occurrence. New Lodge Road, the republican street that was the deadliest thoroughfare during the troubles, is 10 minutes to the south. Close by lies Mount Vernon, an estate plastered with sinister loyalist murals.

Outsiders might be forgiven for supposing that all this would depress the value of the house for sale. Yet it is on the market at £400,000, a sum that would seem to confound the rule that property prices are dictated by three things: location, location, and location.

However, as its value indicates, location is a very specific thing in Belfast, where a few hundred yards can be the difference between tense war zone and serene leafy avenue.

So it is that only a tiny percentage of the population is seriously affected by the disturbances that outside observers often assume hold the entire city in their grip. The police may warn of "a summer of discontent" but most citizens see the riots only on television.

Theirs could hardly be described as a normal city, though the outgoing lord mayor did this week touchingly declare that "despite all the violence, Belfast is still a wonderful place". Much of the north and west of the city is divided up with high peacelines, and more walls are now to be built in the east around Short Strand, the Catholic area that has recently been afflicted by a spread of the rioting. But again these will be confined to just a few areas, where the occupants are always among the city's poorest.

The rest of the people simply get on with their lives, having long ago learnt to steer clear of such troublespots. It is a fair bet that a large majority of Belfast citizens have never in their lives been to Short Strand or Ardoyne, nor indeed up the Shankill or the Falls.

In one way, the persistence of disturbance seems to make a mockery of a peace process that, dating from the IRA cease-fire of 1994, has been in existence for almost a decade. Where, some ask bitterly, is the improvement? The answer is in the number of lives saved. Fifty people have been killed in the past three and a half years, compared with almost 350 in the three and a half years leading up to the ceasefire.

Furthermore, many of the 50 most recent deaths have been within the loyalist underworld, with dozens shot in disputes over drugs and turf wars. Many regard these as post-troubles killings, carried out for reasons not of politics but of territory and power struggles.

The peace process has changed many things, including those loyalist groups who are alienated from it. Although some of them are deeply involved in street disturbances, the number of sectarian assassinations has dramatically dropped. When a young Catholic postman was gunned down on the northern outskirts of the city in January, the protests were so widespread and so heartfelt that even the most Neanderthal loyalist got the message.

The killings have not stopped altogether, but there is a strong feeling in the air that the old ways are not acceptable any more. In an unspoken way, this has helped to keep the death rate down: the sense is that rioting is understandable but regular assassinations are not.

The peace process has thus saved lives, although without bringing calm to all the traditional troublespots. The problem is that there was trouble in Belfast long before the troubles broke out in the late Sixties.

Rioting – sporadic but often intense and very often lethal – broke out on numerous occasions during the 19th and 20th centuries, often in exactly the same streets that are now affected. The politician who last week described the beleaguered Short Strand as "the most dangerous part of Belfast" was not aware of it, but exactly the same words were used about the ghetto in 1921.

St Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, which stands on the sectarian faultline, has stained-glass windows dedicated to parishioners killed in the 1920s, when Michael Collins complained that residents were not being protected. Memories of a fierce gun battle in the church grounds are still fresh.

In other words, the patterns of recurring conflict are virtually intact, hardly affected by the peace process, by 30 years of troubles, and indeed by the arrival of the new millennium. The streets of Short Strand are like First World War trenches, fossilised and preserved.

All of this is unwelcome to the people of Belfast, many of whom had thought that the peace process would work more quickly and more effectively than it has.

Two main views on this have emerged. One, held by most Catholics, is that the process is imperfect but none the less of great value, and that the Good Friday agreement which it produced should be retained and protected.

A majority of Protestants, on the other hand, see less and less merit in the agreement and would like big changes. This means that the next 12 months will see more political turmoil.

The turmoil on the streets, however, goes on almost without reference to the bigger picture, as local factors of territoriality, hatred and fear prevail.

Viewed from this perspective, the reversion to riot is not so much a continuation of the troubles as a re-emergence of quarrels that each generation seems fated to go through.

Belfast is clearly an abnormal city, although most of its people – and certainly those who can afford to pay £400,000 for a house – live far enough away from commotion. But those who live in its troublespots seem doomed to suffer from periodic eruptions of its potent mixture of history and geography.

Month of taunts and tension

7 May: Rival groups fight in Whitewell, north Belfast, and throw petrol bombs at police.

12 May: Shots fired as rival groups hurl acid bombs, stones and bottles in Short Strand, east Belfast. Plastic bullets fired at crowds as police Land Rover burns.

14 May: Riot after security forces search houses in east Belfast. Acid, ammonia and petrol bombs thrown. Baton rounds fired into crowd of 500 people.

15 May: Derelict house set on fire as two groups of 100 fight in east Belfast. Police and army attacked by stones and fireworks.

16 May: Loyalist crowds in north Belfast throw petrol bombs at police.

26 May: Bomb blast in north Belfast road junction followed by fights between 150 people.

27 May: Firework with bolts attached thrown through front window of house in Donegal Road, south Belfast.

29 May: Pipe bombs defused on roof of Strandtown police station. Gravestone of the murdered postal worker Daniel McColgan destroyed in north Belfast.

31 May: Row over Jubilee bunting in Short Strand leads to fighting among up to 1,000 people. Blast bomb injures occupants of police vehicle. Soldiers sent in.

1 June: IRA and UVF said to be orchestrating violence as riots continue.

2 June: Petrol bombs thrown in Short Strand, three people shot, more riots.

3 June: Five wounded by shots between police and rioters in Short Strand. Acting Chief Constable predicts "summer of discontent".

5 June: Crowd throws 50 petrol bombs at police station in west Belfast. More stones thrown between rioters on the Ormeau Bridge. Gunfire in south of the city.

6 June: Pipe bomb explodes outside home of a pensioner in Broadway, west Belfast.