Leading article: Violence unleashed by irresponsible politicians

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In east Belfast, one of the most prominent businesses on the Albertbridge Road, a focal point of the weekend's loyalist rioting, is a large pawn shop offering "pay day loans". Its existence is testimony to the fact that this is run-down inner-city east Belfast, where many live on or near the breadline. Most of the recent violence has been in such districts. The connection between poverty and violence is unmistakeable, and so too is the link between both and paramilitary groups. These three scourges pose a composite threat to peace, stability and progress.

The paramilitary presence is always visible on walls which are adorned with graffiti such as "UVF". Yesterday it could be seen even more graphically in the debris from the riots strewn around the little streets. The authorities have made commendable efforts in the district. Most of the bad housing has been replaced with high-quality modern stock, and there are numerous agencies offering advice on jobs and learning new skills.

But rioting is a very old skill here: major sectarian clashes in the city are recorded as far back as 1813 and since then there have been many unfortunate historical precedents for last weekend's violence. It was sparked by an Orange march, just as the 1813 disturbances were. The Northern Ireland Parades Commission has managed to lay to rest marching issues in many other areas, so that previous trouble-spots such as Drumcree and Lower Ormeau have settled down. But Springfield Road, where this disturbance flared, remains an unresolved problem which annually gives concern. When the Orangemen were refused permission to walk the route they wanted, through a nationalist area, they called supporters on to the streets in Belfast and elsewhere.

Loyalist paramilitary groups had been active and busy over the summer months, waging a feud that has claimed four lives and organising systematic intimidation of Catholic families. The Orange call was therefore the equivalent of crying fire in a crowded theatre. Some of those who responded to the call did so not by staging peaceful protests but by attacking the police with gunfire, blast bombs and petrol bombs. More than 30 officers have been hurt, with civilians also suffering.

The Orange Order has responded essentially with a shrug: responsibility lies with the authorities, it asserts. The march should not have been re-routed; the policing was heavy-handed; Protestant rights have been denied, and those that deny them must shoulder any blame going. This is the politics of irresponsibility, displaying a breathtaking lack of civic sense. It unleashed the paramilitary dogs of war.

Various Unionist politicians have also come in for criticism after some made curiously muffled condemnations of the violence. The comments of Mitchell Reiss, George Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland, were particularly pointed in speaking of "the abdication of responsibility by many Unionist political leaders". The marching controversy triggered the violence but underlying it is a deep loyalist and Unionist dissatisfaction with the way the world is going. This is a familiar phenomenon, for Ulster Protestants always tend towards conservatism and the past decade has been one of unprecedented change.

Protestants want peace as much as anyone else, yet much unease is generated by the deep-seated feeling that the other side - Irish nationalism and republicanism - is doing well. The irony is that the IRA promised, earlier in the summer, to decommission all its weapons and open a new era of unarmed, purely political republicanism. It is due to deliver on this promise within the next month or so: it would be a scandal if loyalist violence should worsen and put decommissioning in doubt.