The North: A cautionary tale of reconciliation

The annual riots in Belfast show the normalisation of abnormality, say Stephen Rainey and Jason Walsh

THINK of the Northern peace process and what comes to mind? Blair and Ahern trumpeting success? One modelled on South Africa and a lesson for Israel and Palestine? Perhaps just Martin McGuinness’s attempts to make capital in the presidential election? What should come to mind is this: The triumph of tactics over vision or strategy.

Since the weekend, dozens of police officers have been injured after hundreds of organised loyalist rioters took to the streets, attacking a republican parade in honour of Henry Joy McCracken, suggesting that little has changed at street level — even among those too young to remember the devastation of IRA’s bombs, loyalist death squads, and the constant background threat of militarised policing.

Petrol bombs, bricks, fireworks, and stones were thrown at police, who responded by firing plastic bullets.

The parade, organised by Republican Network for Unity, a Sinn Féin splinter group which claims to have no links to any paramilitary organisation, was declared “not contentious” by the Parades Commission. Clearly loyalists thought otherwise.

If, as has been suggested, the riots were orchestrated by the UVF then questions will be asked — but will they be the right ones? Here’s the rub: Even if the mainstream UVF was not involved, violent confrontations are baked into the peace process.

The signs are bad. Known loyalists were seen photographing republican marchers from the balcony of the Orange Hall on Belfast’s Clifton St.

Billy Hutchinson, leader of the UVF’s political wing, the Progressive Unionist Party, denied any connection between the UVF and the riot.

PSNI chief superintendent George Clarke said there was “no doubt” the violence was organised, but that it was too early to say if paramilitaries were behind it.

In truth this summer’s outbursts of street violence in north Belfast don’t signal anything new, merely exhibitions of perennial tensions. While much has changed in the North, progress has not been universal.

Things have improved since the 1990s — the absence of bombs and relative absence of bullets is not nothing — but the expansion of inequality, including the cultivation of fraudulent “cultural difference” among sections of society is the price of Northern society’s persistence. In fact, to speak of “Northern Irish society” is to speak of nothing. All talk of respect, the “two communities”, and “new dispensations” pushes all debate into the background.

As a visitor to Belfast you are likely to see fistfights at closing time. You will hear threats. It’s likely you’ll have at least moments of insecurity as you walk the still-deserted streets after 6pm. Hopefully you won’t wander into one of Belfast’s numerous no-go areas by mistake.

For the people of Belfast, the negotiations that occur daily in our minds concern how to process and evade the worst outcomes of this warped version of normality. The endless negotiations among politicians concern “the two communities”, or some such ill-fitting label. These do correspond to something, but day-to-day matters continue in their abnormal normality.

The “new dispensation” has, by design, no politicians of merit capable of dealing with realpolitik. The people trying to deal with the untended ills of a once-fractured and still lost society grumble and fumble, but the political power to engage with the problems locks itself in Stormont, discussing what the “two communities” need. This dereliction of duty is eerily echoed by the ongoing dereliction of much of Belfast itself.

As long as politics remains designed solely to ward off the return of the conflict, peace will never be a possibility. The Troubles won’t return. Mostly, the minds of ordinary people are on other things, such as having something resembling a life.

The people absorbed all the rhetoric about peace, stability, and normality. They took it onboard and now want to reap the benefits. But the political movers have no idea how to attain normality, or what they’d do if they achieved it by mistake.

The democratic solution would be to step up, to stand and deliver, but in the fractured, lost nature of Northern policy there is little chance of this. The lines are too heavily drawn and serve only those doing the drawing.

The institutions are dysfunctional and factional. “Justice”, for instance, is a republican-unionist issue, so it is not really about justice, it’s about balance. On this and every other issue the balance must be struck between the “two communities”.

Northern politics should be recognised as a baleful embarrassment. We have no lessons for the world on reconciliation, save as a cautionary tale.

* Stephen Rainey is a Belfast-born philosopher based in Brussels, while Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin and Belfast

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