News Analysis: In the war zones of Belfast, the resolve of the peace process is being stretched

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The Independent Online

The visitor to the Short Strand ghetto quickly learns to watch the sky. Some of the objects overhead are swifts and starlings, but some of them are large stones, hurled with venom over the wall from the loyalist Albertbridge Road.

The visitor to the Short Strand ghetto quickly learns to watch the sky. Some of the objects overhead are swifts and starlings, but some of them are large stones, hurled with venom over the wall from the loyalist Albertbridge Road.

"Heads up," says the man who has become expert in differentiating between the ornithological and the half-brick. "Don't throw back," he tells the four Catholic youths near by. "Leave them be."

It is like a low-intensity war zone. Those houses within firing range have windows and doors covered by thick sheets of woodchip. Cars are parked only in protected places. Vulnerable areas are deserted. Military engineers can be heard hammering and banging as they heighten the existing wall between the sides. Yellow and red fire-hoses snake along footpaths, attached to water mains in readiness for arson.

Although the Catholic youths are not returning fire, stockpiles of half-bricks are dotted around the streets ready for use. These are ignored by the occasional police Land Rover that cruises around the streets of this extraordinary, hemmed-in place.

On the other side of wall, houses in Protestant Cluan Place have been severely damaged by missiles from Short Strand. The loyalist version is that the aim of republican aggression is to clear the street and claim new territory for Short Strand. Catholics say it was a defensive return of fire.

Trying to figure out exactly who or what starts Belfast's all-too-familiar bouts of rioting and clashes is a thankless task, since each side has its version of events and each is affronted when that is not accepted.

But the IRA leadership is most unlikely to be intent on causing conflict on the streets or on opening up a fresh front in east Belfast to add to the disruption already affecting the north of the city. If the IRA wanted trouble, Short Strand is not the place to pick a fight. Its 4,000 residents are cut off from the large Catholic areas in the west and north, and think of themselves as surrounded by 60,000 Protestants.

In the encircling Protestant streets the main loyalist para-military groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, have a strong presence, centring on well-known pubs. East Belfast loyalists have been comparatively quiet but there are many of them and launching attacks on the Short Strand is an easy mark. The UVF has been to the fore in the recent trouble.

In the north of the city, where disturbances have been breaking out for years at several flashpoints, the UDA in particular has discovered that trouble is good for business. A bit of rioting bloods youngsters, delivering teenage recruits to the paramilitary ranks. It gives loyalist groups status as apparent defenders of their community: they thrive on conflict.

The north Belfast clashes are by contrast more problematic for the IRA, whose leaders face a clamour from local Catholics to teach the rioting Protestants manners. "Why don't you fire a clip at them?" ask the more belligerent locals.

In areas such as Ardoyne there is little support for the IRA's periodic acts of arms decommissioning; many would prefer to see the guns used rather than put beyond use. Much of Ardoyne believes the IRA has been too restrained, and picking off a few loyalists would help calm things. But while IRA guns have been generally silent in Ardoyne, they have certainly been heard in Short Strand, where five loyalists have been wounded.

Ardoyne is big, assertive and can look after itself, but Short Strand is regarded as perpetually vulnerable to loyalist aggression. There the gun is thought of as occasionally necessary to make up for local Catholics being isolated and outnumbered. For up to a century, the area has come under violent loyalist attack, and local republicans have been quick to hit back. The message to the loyalists is that fire would be met with fire and that Short Strand should be left alone.

The claim that Short Strand residents started the present disturbances is probably untrue. Even a short visit is enough to show that these are people with their backs literally to the surrounding walls. The psychology of the area is of survival and defence, not of expansionist aggression. But another long-established part of its make-up is that it will not turn the other cheek, and marauding loyalists, if they encroach too far, can expect gunfire.

None of this is good news for the peace process, though blaming the process itself for a problem with such ancient roots and so much historical precedent is probably unfair.

The first killing of a Catholic Short Strand man was in 1886, the year of the first Home Rule Bill, long before the state of Northern Ireland. That and many other deaths down the years demonstrate the incredible durability of sectarian territorial disputes, whatever the politics of the day.

The most localised disputes can have far-reaching consequences. By some miracle the five loyalists shot were not killed, and security sources say police prevented a subsequent loyalist attack to murder a Catholic. A death could set the place alight.

Yesterday the issue moved from the backstreets to Downing Street, as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness followed the Unionist leader David Trimble to tell the Prime Minister that the other side was primarily responsible.

Whatever the precise cause of this outbreak, the UVF and IRA have brought out the guns. This UVF belligerence is worrying since the organisation has been generally supportive of the peace process. Its political spokesman, David Ervine, is widely regarded as a hero of the process, having done much to wean the organisation from the gun to the political arena.

But at least one part of the UVF has decided that in east Belfast conflict is preferable to politics.

The peace process has proved resilient in coping with such turbulence; despite the rioting the death toll is hugely reduced. At the same time the perseverance of such conflict is a destabilising force for the process, and carries with it the danger of death.

Now Army engineers are making the walls bigger in the hope of making life more difficult for the stone-throwers. Peacelines in Belfast come in many shapes and sizes but, sadly, they all have one thing in common: once erected, they never come down again.

Timeline Ulster

  • 31 May Nine police officers injured when blast bomb strikes their Land Rover.
  • 2 June Three loyalists, including two aged 15, shot by Republican gunmen. Houses torched and missiles thrown at police.
  • 3 June 1,000 involved in rioting, three shootings. Loyalist gunmen attack a bus, wounding the driver. Northern Ireland's acting police chief says Ulster is "on the edge of the abyss".
  • 4 June John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, calls emergency talks with sectarian leaders.
  • 5 June David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, accuses the IRA of orchestrating violence.
  • 6 June Thirty-strong mob bombards police station with 50 petrol bombs.
  • 7 June Catholic policeman injured in car bomb attack. Masked Protestants storm Belfast University.
  • 9 June More violence as vehicles are burnt, shots fired and petrol bombs thrown.