DUBLIN, Ireland — The world has seen dramatic pictures of violent street disturbances in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. But it would be a mistake to assume that Belfast and Derry are returning to the bad old days of the Troubles of 1968-1998.
Much of the street fighting was what Northern Ireland’s top policeman calls "recreational rioting" and "tourist rioting." This phenomenon reflects a problem many cities have to cope with on summer evenings — hundreds of disaffected young people on the streets with nothing to do.
Read: Recreational rioting: a youth fad in Northern Ireland
The difference is that in Northern Ireland there are sectarian resentments that are easily exploited at this time of year, when the Protestant Orange Order celebrates the victory of King William over the Catholic King James in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Dozens of these parades take place on July 12 without any trouble, unless they pass close to nationalist Catholic areas under police protection. In the one or two interface districts where this still occurs, nationalist youths ritually attack the police with stones and petrol bombs, and this year it was a bit more serious than usual.
On the worst night of rioting in north Belfast, 55 police officers were injured when they confronted crowds of teenagers trying to stop an Orange parade passing by the nationalist Ardoyne district. One female officer was seriously injured when hit on the head by a concrete block dropped from a building.
Several cars were hijacked and burned and shots were fired, and disturbances continued in succeeding evenings. In Lurgan, a city in County Armagh, the Belfast-to-Dublin train was stopped by a group of 60 nationalist youths who damaged the engine and looted passengers’ baggage. The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggot, described the violence as "a collective outpouring of recreational rioting with a really sinister edge."
He told reporters he was investigating whether “international influences” were involved (he didn’t say what he meant by this), and that police were looking at the issue of “tourist rioting.” He said some of the rioters were as young as 8, 9 and 10 years old.
Observers at the scene recounted how many youths had come from other parts of Belfast and the Republic to be “offended” by the Orange marchers and to engage the police in battle. The “sinister edge” to which Baggot referred is the action of dissident republican nationalists, who were seen to be orchestrating the violence in the background.
Since the Troubles, the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has entered government and has thrown its support behind the reformed Northern Ireland police service.
Thus deputy first minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin joined First Minister Peter Robinson and all the other Northern parties in condemning the latest violence.
For the first time, the police force in Northern Ireland is not only supported by both the main nationalist and pro-British parties but also subject to the power-sharing government at Stormont, as justice powers were devolved by London earlier this year. As part of that process, the parties agreed to tackle the contentious question of Orange parades that pass by Catholic areas but that issue remains unresolved.
The dissidents behind the rioting, supporters of the “Real IRA” which has carried out several explosions and shootings in the last year, were intent on challenging the ability of Sinn Féin to control elements of its base support.
The danger is that a death on either side could stir up more general communal passions, but the measured response of the police contrasts with the heavy-handed and often sectarian actions of riot squads during the Troubles when it was known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Then it was common to hear nationalist crowds taunt the police with shouts of “SS-RUC.”
The same slogan was recently shouted by teenage rioters. It is an indication of how some people are stuck in the past, however young, just as much as the Orange marchers who every July publicly celebrate a victory over Catholics more than three centuries ago.