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.