Belfast saw its worst Loyalist-originated rioting in several years on Monday-Wednesday 20-22 June. Three people suffered gunshot wounds and houses on both sides of the east Belfast community — on the interface between (Protestant) lower Newtownards Road and (Catholic) Short Strand — were damaged by petrol bombs, stones and other missiles. What lies behind the violence?
The lower Newtownards Road, a main arterial route through east Belfast, lies in the shadow of Harland and Wolff’s famous twin cranes, Samson and Goliath. With de-industrialisation, the shipyards employ only a fraction of their former workforce and the decline of heavy industry such as the nearby Sirocco Engineering Works has fundamentally altered the nature of the local Protestant community. Long gone are the old certainties of industrial employment, with its network of shop stewards and working-class clubs and societies, and in its place is left a malaise, accentuated by poor political representation and a feeling of being left out of the so-called “peace dividend” which was supposed to accompany the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
It is in this context of unemployment, deprivation and low self-confidence that the Loyalist paramilitaries have thrived, feeding off various grievances and offering a destructive means to young Protestant people of gaining status and power. The implosion of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) after its leader, Dawn Purvis, stood down last year in frustration over continued Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) violence, has left a vacuum which is only partly being filled by the main Protestant Party — and the one in power — the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Many people have been completely alienated from the Stormont political system.
Now a renegade commander within the UVF has been stamping his authority in the area. New murals, flags and graffiti on a nearby bar stating “property of the UVF” have appeared. Reports indicate that elements discontented with the rise of dissident Republican violence have been frustrated at the moves of the UVF leadership towards becoming a more civilian organisation, and are anxious over speculation about a “super-grass” trial involving a one-time UVF figure. The fact that the new commander is able to mobilise hundreds of supporters, bussing many Loyalists from other areas, suggests that sizeable parts of the organisation are not willing to give up paramilitarism in the foreseeable future.
It is a worry that these tensions will escalate. We could see an intra-Loyalist feud of the sort which happened when Billy Wright broke from the UVF to form the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) in 1996. Or there could be further clashes between Loyalists and Republicans if dissident militants attempt to take the role of “defenders” of the Catholic community. It was in the Short Strand, following the attack on St. Matthew’s Church in 1970, that the nascent Provisional IRA made decisive steps towards assuming this reputation.
The next few years will be testing for the political structures set up by the “peace process”. The futile campaign by Catholic paramilitaries against the British state risks, once again, unleashing sectarian mayhem. Meanwhile we have to brace ourselves for a succession of centenaries (the formation of the original UVF in 1912 and the 1916 Easter Rising, for instance); activities around those threaten to polarise opinion, much in the way the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 — and the Loyalist reaction to it — fuelled tensions which came to a head in a full-blown conflict three years later.
An uneasy calm has now descended upon east Belfast and the First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, have instructed a senior civil servant to urgently engage with community leaders on both sides, but future events may be out of their hands.