The Belfast flag riots have made headlines across the world, forced a ministerial statement in the House of Commons and raised fears about a return of violent sectarianism.
But many of the Protestant youths involved in the protests against restrictions on the flying of the Union Flag have little political knowledge and are driven by the “visceral excitement” of disorder, according to a widely-respected community leader.
Dr John Kyle, a local GP and politician, told The Independent today that many of the teenagers “are enjoying themselves and having a bit of a buzz. They’re out for a bit of sport.”
They experience “the exhilaration that comes to young men”, by confronting police, he said. Many come from “chaotic” homes with problems including excessive alcohol consumption, addiction and high use of anti-depressants and pain-killers.
Some local schools are excellent but others are “very poor, woeful,” he added. “It’s not like the worst New York ghettos but there is significant social deprivation.” Dr Kyle is one of the very few professionals to voluntarily involve himself in the formidable problems of the loyalist inner city. Twenty years as a local GP, witnessing conditions and attitudes at first hand, have given him insight into the mind of loyalist east Belfast.
A committed Christian, he is also one of the leaders of the Progressive Unionist party, which has links to illegal loyalist groupings. He has worked for years to attempt to persuade them away from paramilitarism and into constructive politics.
“The vast majority of people here are annoyed about the flag coming down from the city hall,” he said. “Most of east Belfast thinks it is ridiculous, they think it is wrong, I’ve rarely seen such anger. The majority are protesting peacefully and don’t want to see violence, but there are a number of young people who are quite happy to get involved should violence start.” But he adds: “The rioting is different to the protests – when the rioting kicks off you get a sort of natural visceral excitement.”
They are mostly teenagers, the majority aged from about 12 years of age to around 22. Most are locals though some, alerted by social media, travel from miles away to join in. “I’ve been there trying to exert a positive influence,” he said “Local churches have been trying to set up diversionary activities but the kids haven’t been interested. They said, “Ach, why would we go and do that when we can go out and riot?’
“I remonstrate with the kids saying cut this out, but it hasn’t worked. A lot of very young people are caught up in it. You’re talking about people who are not politically informed or interested.”
Today Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, warned the Commons that the riots showed that “sectarian divisions remain deeply entrenched.” She added: “These people are not defending our national flag, they are dishonouring our national flag and our country.”
The restrictions on flying the Union Flag are just the latest in a series of blows to the loyalist culture which include issues such as the curbing of Protestant parading.
He went on: “Loyalists feel that they’re the losers, that they’ve had to give up something and they’ve got nothing in return. That feeds a sense of grievance.”
That belief is part of a toxic mix along with economic and social problems. There is still a paramilitary presence, alongside drug dealers and anti-social behaviour.
And Dr Kyle’s outlook is bleak. “Even if you achieve a solution to the rioting you’ll still have this grumbling resentment and anger. People really think they’ve been walked over. That’s a boil that needs to be lanced.”