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Rioting in Ireland has sinister edge

Irish youths have picked the wrong time of year to riot for kicks.

Cars burn during Nationalist rioting in the Ardoyne area of North Belfast, Northern Ireland on July 12, 2010. The rioting started after the police forced the Protestant Orangemen's traditional 12 July parade against the wishes of a group of Nationalist residents. (Stephen Wilson/AFP/Getty Images

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."