Recreational rioting: a youth fad in Northern Ireland

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A different strain of sectarianism plagues North Belfast today, more than a decade after Northern Ireland's peace agreement.

Stemming not from political ambition but still falling along the Protestant-Catholic fault line, daily skirmishes now have a catchy name: recreational rioting.

Considered a low-level nuisance, it has become the extracurricular activity of choice for youths in the poorest parts of Belfast, where unemployment is fierce, paramilitaries seethe underground and the Kentucky Fried Chicken is a popular hang-out. Fueled on alcohol, drugs and boredom, teenagers gather to throw rocks, homemade bombs and vitriolic slurs at one another.

Read: Rioting in Ireland has a sinister edge

For hundreds of years, the two tribes – Catholics and Protestants – have tried to share the same land, despite different understandings of history and culture. The brutality of the Troubles catapulted the small region onto the international stage as a conflict zone in the late 20th century. It was the 1998 co-sharing agreement that made Northern Ireland remarkable, as a seemingly impossible peace was found.

In contrast to the rioting that made international headlines in Northern Ireland last week — rioting that had a clearer political agenda and momentum from dissident republican groups — recreational rioting is "purely sectarian," said Sam Uttley, a community worker from the Lower Shankill Community Association. In other words, people form opposing opinions of each other based on their cultural upbringing.

Uttley spends most of his days and nights fielding text messages and scouring Facebook and Bebo, a United Kingdom social networking site, for hints about skirmishes around his ward.

“During the year Protestant and Catholic kids meet at cross-community events and exchange telephone numbers,” he said. “Later, when they get bored, they text each other for a fight.”

Anti-social behavior is a problem across the U.K., formally recognized by Parliament’s Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to curb youths’ destructive habits like noise complaints, graffiti and trespassing. The difference here is the way it hinges on sectarian history.

Marching season in Northern Belfast.
(Carrie Porter/GlobalPost)

The summer marching season, the peak of which is July 12, observes the communities as they celebrate their heritage with parades, showcasing the proud loyalty to each side’s version of history. A heady display of flags, flutes and family combines with warmer weather for a recipe of literal and figurative Molotov cocktails.

Last week, more than 80 police officers were injured in Northern Ireland, as they tried to keep the peace between the two communities during annual parades.

But for Joe Keenan, who lives on the peace lines, the recreational rioting does not stop when the summer parades end.

In 1984 Keenan moved into his new home in North Belfast and was greeted by a black steel fence. Only eight inches high, it marked the pencil-high boundary between his Protestant lawn and the Catholic youth, armed with glass bottles and golf clubs, who lived up the street.

Today the fence has become a wall eight feet tall. From his stoop Keenan has a front-row seat to the sectarian fighting that refuses to burn out. Keeping a detailed log of events, he has recorded 44 attacks on his home since January.

“It is bad enough getting it from the Catholic side but also when you get it from your own Protestant side, you just think they need a good kick in the head,” said Keenan, who at age 52 is out of work since a construction injury a few years ago.

Punitive measures for rioting are historically weaker in the Northern Ireland than in England, where rioting offenses can lead to years in jail rather than months, according to Neil Jarman, the director at the Institute for Conflict Research (ICR), based in Belfast.

“It all feeds into the notion that rioting is not that serious,” he said. “The kids will come out because they enjoy it, but engaging with them will be the solution, not in a punitive sense but in stopping them from wanting to partake in the activity.”

“The challenge is to give support for a community that doesn’t support us,” said Inspector Norman Haslett of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who is in charge of policing in the toughest pockets of Belfast, during an interview in late May. “We must build up trust and understanding … they throw rocks at us … it’s a learned behavior.”

Some analysts say the chronic recreational rioting is a product of the area’s poverty. In spring 2010, Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency released a deprivation report that ranked wards by factors such as income, employment, health and education. Wards in and near North and West Belfast took seven spots in the top 10 of nearly 600 wards around Northern Ireland for overall deprivation.

The lack of economic opportunity mixed with a long history of fighting creates a bubble of contained tension and constrained peace at interface points between the two sides. “The level of segregation is so striking here,” said Chris O’Halloran of the Belfast Interface Project (BIP). “Only five percent of kids go to integrated schools for Catholics and Protestants, and ten percent inter-marry.”

As practice coordinator for BIP, O’Halloran works on regeneration projects for interfaces in Belfast. “There are 88 instances of defensive use of public space in Greater Belfast,” he said. “A lot of those aren’t walls or fences, but instead derelict space.”

This number has nearly tripled since the cease-fires in 1994 and 1995, when the official number was 27. While O’Halloran said the stark contrast could be attributed to poor counting in the early 1990s, he acknowledged the lack of progress in these areas.

“Rioting was widely tolerated as a normal spectator sport,” said Jarman of ICR. “The sectarian geography of Belfast enables it to happen easily because there’s an easy target, so it is predicated on sectarian differences without being overtly sectarian.”

The rash of street fighting comes at a critical time for Northern Ireland’s peace process. In April Westminster transferred policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, symbolizing the final “jigsaw piece” of the peace process.

Meanwhile, dissident activity has spiked. The Independent Monitoring Committee dubbed dissident groups “highly active and dangerous” in a report this May, while the PSNI raised the security alert to its highest level since the 1998 Omagh bombing.

Joe Keenan in his Northern Belfast home.
(Carrie Porter/GlobalPost)

In an ICR study earlier this year, 70 percent of the youths reported having contact with the police. Of those youths, 38 percent described their experience with police as “disrespectful.”

A bloated sense of violence, with media coverage of burnt-out cars and riots, trumps signs of progress, which most people in Belfast say is obvious. “Five or 10 years ago we wouldn’t have had both politicians coming out to condemn the rioting like we did this year,” said Jarman of ICR. His study also found 32 percent of the youths described their meeting with police as “polite.”

“We have to remember that trouble hasn’t escalated into other parts of the city, and there is cross-community support for peace,” he said.

But for Keenan on Oldpark Road, a night of sleep would be peace enough. He keeps a fire extinguisher by the front door, which has been replaced by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive five times and now is made of the sturdiest wood available.

“It’s an ordinary way of life for me, living behind these bars,” he said. “It’s like a prison.”