Is it too much to hope that Northern Ireland will respond to the latest plan to ease tension?

There are riots and there is stoicism; today's Belfast is a tale of two cities


Much of Friday night’s savage rioting, when loyalists launched a fierce attack on police, took place in North Street in central Belfast. It erupted yards from the site of the city’s first recorded sectarian riot. That broke out in July 1813, just over two centuries ago, the first of the many convulsions which have earned the city the unhappy description of riot-torn Belfast. Yet today it is a tale of two cities.

By yesterday morning there were absolutely no signs of trouble and no sense of danger: foreign visitors strolled around North Street, tourist buses cruised around, a number shops were open and the atmosphere was relaxed. The city, like the rest of the world, gets collectively exasperated by the recurring commotions. If riots are part of its make-up, so too is stoicism. There is a prevailing sense that flare-ups will come and go, but that life can and should go on. Northern Ireland has become adept at the communal shrug.

This is partly because rioting – most often arising from the issue of contentious marches – has become so tiresomely familiar. But it is also because, while no solution to the problem has emerged, it has contracted to a few areas.

There is still much bitterness and hatred but the extent of actual disorder has dwindled markedly. Less than two decades ago loyalist protests produced what a senior Presbyterian minister summed up as “Northern Ireland’s Chernobyl, with almost a melt-down in community relations”. A senior policing figure said privately: “We were on the brink of all-out civil war. We have the potential in this community to have a Bosnia-style situation.”

This comparison with 1996 shows how far Belfast has come, but also how far it has yet to go. Nobody believes the bad old days will come back, but equally it is difficult to argue that Northern Ireland is a normal society. There is huge disappointment that while the peace process has brought great improvements it has delivered at a snail’s pace.

In an attempt to speed things up the local parties will this autumn import from the US a deus ex machina in the form of Richard Haass, a former US diplomat with extensive experience of Northern Ireland and other troublespots. His formidable task will be to tackle marching and other issues which have proved beyond the abilities of local politicians to resolve.

The hope is that he will not end up as a senior British minister did in the early 1970s when, boarding a plane from Belfast, he bade farewell with the words, “What a bloody awful country – for God’s sake bring me a large gin and tonic.”

Nobody believes Haass can magically negate the effects of 200 years of history: Belfast has not witnessed its last street fracas. But American expertise has helped deliver breakthroughs in Northern Ireland in the past. It can do so again.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales / Account Manager

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales / Account Manager is re...

Ashdown Group: Application Developer - C#.Net, ASP.Net - Cambridgeshire

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Software Application Developer (C# & ASP.Net, SQL S...

Recruitment Genius: Payroll Officer - Part Time

£12047 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Part Time Payroll Officer required for t...

Recruitment Genius: Event Management and Marketing Admin Support

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot