Leading article: Belfast riots are price of poor politics


Riots on the streets of Belfast look alarmingly like a return to the bad old days. Indeed, the sight of an Orange band marching in circles and playing a sectarian tune in front of a Catholic church may prompt claims that nothing has changed. Not so.

The symmetry that outsiders tend to see between Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic halves is superficial. The Protestant loyalist working-class community of the past was one where boys left school at 16 and moved straight into well-paid jobs in the shipyards or heavy engineering companies from which Catholics were excluded. Today, the jobs have gone but the culture, which placed a low premium on education, remains.

By contrast, the Catholic working class put much greater emphasis on schooling. With the legislating away of institutional anti-Catholic discrimination over the past decades, the Catholic community has had a lift distinctly absent in working-class loyalist areas, whose paramilitaries were behind this week's riots.

Politics may have delivered a peace in which the economy, investment and tourism have been normalised, but there has been no big peace dividend in terms of new jobs for either working-class community. Marches and parades – and disputes about them – are the tribal badges which attach to this divide. And where politics has absolutely failed is in attempts to replace the much-criticised Parades Commission which places conditions on republican and loyalist marches. Politicians on both sides came up with an alternative in 2010 but it was shelved after opposition from the Orange Order. The politicians gave up too easily, and these riots are the price.

One positive development has been that Presbyterian and Anglican Church leaders, who have previously tacitly supported the Orange Order, have this week roundly condemned it. The loyalist unemployed need jobs. But the Orange Order also needs to know that all sides – from Martin McGuinness to the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church – are intent on moving in a very different direction, leaving its members to keep marching round in circles.