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Recreational rioting: a youth fad in Northern Ireland

A decade after peace, Belfast teenagers throw Molotov cocktails — this time in the name of fun.

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.”