United action needed against sectarian riots

The nights of rioting which took place in East Belfast, beginning on the evening of Monday 31st August, brought into sharp focus many of the underlying issues which exist in Northern Ireland. They demonstrated that, eleven years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we still live in a deeply divided society with huge social problems, problems which the politicians in Stormont are incapable of dealing with. By Daniel Waldron

The trouble erupted after Sinn Fein organised an event to mark the closure of the Mountpottinger Road police station on the Monday evening. Crowds of young people from Catholic and Protestant areas gathered in the area, numbering up to 200, some of whom were armed, leading to stones and petrol bombs being hurled. The police waded into the conflict and began firing plastic bullets into the crowds. Three of those involved in the rioting have subsequently been arrested. 

No doubt, an element of the rioting was purely anti-social behaviour. This is to be expected, however, when one in five young people in the North are out of work and with few prospects for a decent future, feeling alienated from society. This proportion would be even higher in the deprived working-class areas that those involved in the rioting were drawn from. This is exacerbated by the complete lack of social housing and youth facilities available to these young people. 

On the other hand, there was also a consciously sectarian edge to the conflict. Even though paramilitary-style violence has decreased, Northern Ireland is more divided than ever before, with fewer people mixing with ‘the other community’, sectarian turf wars and more peace walls than before the ‘peace process’. It is almost certain that dissident republican groups and rogue loyalist elements, determined to drag the working class into all-out conflict, intentionally stoked up the trouble for their own ends. 

These riots were a perfect example of the inability of the main parties to unite the communities. While they aim to hold together their coalition at Stormont, these parties rely on sectarian division for their support base. Thus, while Sinn Fein now accepts the PSNI and participated fully in the Policing Board and DPPs, and actually called for more policing to stop the riots, they still mark the closure of police stations in an attempt to appeal to grassroots republicans that they are increasingly alienated from. Similar contradictions can be seen with the unionist parties. The right-wing economic policies of these parties also create the social and economic desperation in which more hardline elements can grow.

Only working-class communities themselves can prevent scenes like this being repeated. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, but something which has worked in the past. Most residents want to be able to go about their lives in peace, without the threat of their homes being attacked or under siege. Joint forums should now be established between the communities in these areas, based on ordinary residents, to discuss ways they can prevent alienated and sectarian elements from creating a conflict which they do not want for themselves or their children.

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