The language of Belfast politics has never been for the faint-hearted – and in the past was frequently accompanied by gunfire – but recent weeks have seen a descent to new levels of bitterness, dismaying those who hoped a new sense of partnership could be created.
A political impasse between unionists and republicans has been deepened by public name-calling by prominent figures on both sides. One of the lowest points came when Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, described some unionists as “bastards” while a colleague called a unionist MP “a bollocks”.
This followed the MP Gregory Campbell declaring – specifically on behalf of his ruling Democratic Unionist Party – that in last-ditch talks aimed at breaking the deadlock, submissions from Sinn Fein would be treated as “no more than toilet paper”.
While Mr Adams apologised for his remarks, the DUP crowed that it had succeeded in “driving Sinn Fein to swearing”.
The spat has, not surprisingly, lowered the already low expectations from talks designed to avert a collapse of the power-sharing arrangement which combines the DUP, Sinn Fein and other parties in the Belfast Assembly. But it is just one of a stream of exchanges and conflicts which show the obstinate persistence of deep tribalism which it was hoped would gradually fade as the parties worked together in government.
On Monday a Catholic male nurse was awarded just under £10,000 in damages for sectarian harassment, which included being offered “Drumcree chicken” – a reference to an acrimonious Orange marching dispute that after more than a decade remains unresolved.
A tribunal upheld a number of complaints from the nurse, including one that his manager had drawn a Union flag on hospital documents, and that during a meal he had been told: “Micks at one end, Oranges in the other.”
This comes during a wider mood of confrontation. Although life in Northern Ireland has improved dramatically in many respects, many loyalists believe they have lost out in the peace process, feeling particularly aggrieved at curbs on Protestant parading and flag-flying.
In some parts of Belfast, flag-waving Protestants continue to stage protests against the ban on loyalist parades passing close to Catholic areas. A flag-bedecked permanent protest, known as Camp Twaddell, has been set up across a road from the republican Ardoyne area; frequent clashes with police have cost an estimated £12m.
Last month a motorised- wheelchair user was convicted of ramming a police officer during a protest. The court heard that he had repeatedly directed his wheelchair, weighing up to 28 stone, at police. An inspector told the court that the defendant was swearing and abusive, and said the incident was part of attempts to incite a crowd who filmed it on their mobile phones. He added: “This set-up happens on a nightly basis and has done for the past 400-odd nights. Things like that are staged to try to rile the crowd. He had come out with a whole crowd round him and their cameras already on.”
While most of the street protests have involved loyalists, heavily armed dissident republicans also remain active. Police this week warned they pose a severe threat and are planning terrorist attacks in the run-up to Christmas.
Recent months have seen several attacks on police with a new type of home-made rocket. Although there have been no Troubles deaths during 2014, police have warned both Mr Adams and Mr Campbell of threats to their lives.
Again, incendiary language has been both a cause and a symptom of the problems. Hostile exchanges between the DUP and Sinn Fein broke out in the Assembly recently when Mr Campbell angered republicans by parodying a snatch of the Irish language. Mocking the Irish phrase for “Thank you, Speaker,” he declared: “Curry my yoghurt, can coca coalyer.”
After Sinn Fein angrily denounced this as an insult to the Irish language, Mr Campbell followed it up at his party conference by holding up a tub of yoghurt, saying the DUP would never make concessions on the language, and would treat republican documents as the aforementioned toilet paper.
At a public meeting soon afterwards, Mr Adams declared: “The point is to break these bastards. And what’s going to break them is equality.” Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew chimed in: “All Gregory has to do is to be a bollocks.” While Mr Adams insisted he had been talking specifically about bigots, homophobes and racists, many Protestants claimed he was referring to all unionists.
The clashes have continued this week; “Curry my yougrt [sic] – oil my AK-47” was sprayed on the home of George Duddy, a colleague of Mr Campbell’s who is also mayor of Coleraine.
Mr Duddy said of the incident, the fourth within a year: “It’s probably the same headcases who are doing it, but there is a different tone to it now … they are referencing firearms.”
Such attacks are all too familiar at the homes of a number of politicians, many of whom have installed security measures. There have also been dozens of arson and paint attacks on religious targets, typically Orange halls and Catholic churches.
Previous rounds of talks have failed to make significant progress in controversial areas such as marching, the flying of flags and on dealing with the past, while both the DUP and Sinn Fein have described the system of government as dysfunctional. Far from learning to co-operate, the major players seem mired in the politics of confrontation.
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