Although in modern times we automatically accept that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and do not necessarily see this as a curiosity, it is, after all, an integral part of another country’s land. If it was Northern France then the notion that we maintained control over it would be slightly more questionable. Whilst I’m not an Irish Republican there is something slightly anachronistic about this arrangement – and this is very evident when you visit.
A walk round the South Belfast Loyalist areas of Donegal Road, and Sandy Row, as well as the Newtonards Road in East Belfast is like being transported back into a 1980’s council estate world. These districts undoubtedly represent an underclass, confined to their specific streets. A trip up Sandy Row, and then down Wellwood Street, is in hardcore Loyalist territory with the July 11th bonfire firmly positioned on the waste ground at the end. A feeble barrier separates it from the hotel car park, and the main road of Great Victoria Street. This is a main artery into the city centre which could be in any major city – the car park is the no man’s land between a city trying to be modern, and the fractured sectarian regions with an iron grip on their past.
The Loyalist Donegal Road leads all the way to the Westlink, and Broadway – a dividing “wall” with the iconic Catholic Falls Road over the way. This intersection is an inevitable flash point and is the scene of conflict during the height of the marching season.
On July 11th, dotted throughout the Loyalist areas are large bonfires constructed from old pallets, and general rubbish, adorned with anti-Republican flags, and symbols – including references to the IRA and Sinn Fein. As I approached the bonfire near Sandy Row, approaching across the No-Man’s Land of the car park I was shouted at by some youths asking for money. I ignored them. I continued taking some photographs – the next thing I knew was a big crunch by the side of me as some rocks smashed against the tarmac. I moved away slightly, and then another one came over. I was just simple target practice to fill the boredom until midnight when the bonfire would be lit.
As the sun goes down and many bonfires are lit, the landscape of the city is reminiscent of the Blitz, with thick black smoke billowing into the sky. This represents the burning of Catholicism.
The Loyalists do live up to their name, and are excessive in their display of the Union Jack, symbols of the Queen, and demonstration of their contribution to the British cause in the war. Their wish to remain part of the UK feels very desperate, and is not reciprocated by the people on the mainland. Metaphorically they are like the child who is being ignored by a parent, and is the “black sheep” of the family, who goes overboard in exhibiting their loyalty. Most people who live on the mainland probably don’t give Northern Ireland a second thought, and don’t really consider it part of the UK – it is not part of Great Britain – it’s “that troubled area in another land” – a nuisance that we’d rather ignore, until, of course, the bombings come to the mainland.
There is definitely a feel of the Orwellian proletariat with the Loyalist and Catholic enclaves, firmly caged into their ear-marked streets, confined to their geography and lost in time, not really joining the rest of us in the 21st Century. Past bitterness has not healed. These geographical enmities seem to be hard-wired into the psyche of the community at a tribal level – it defies any logic or pragmatism.
The burning of the bonfires on the evening of the 11th,and the marching on the 12th does nothing for reconciliation or integration.It reinforces the divide and turns the key again that firmly locks the Loyalists into their entrenched positions and pushes the Catholics back into their communities.
This year it was evident that tensions were rising as there had been an increase in the prescence of republican dissidents, and more rioting and conflict in the build up to the 12th. The popular expectation was that there would be trouble at the intersection of the Ardoyne Road, and the Crumlin Road, as the march returned back to its starting point later in the afternoon of the 12th. Although the march passed by peacefully with heavy protection from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), it was evident that the local Catholic youths did not want to miss out on the media opportunity of causing a riot. It did not extend from poor policing, or a spontaneous conflict with other members of the community – it was “recreational rioting”
As the Orange marches passed back through central Belfast ( branded as the more family-friendly Orangefest) the atmosphere was breezy and frothy. Alot of people had spent the day drinking, and fun and merriment went along with the music and cheer. Then, in a brief act of sectarian violence, a by-stander was brutally attacked in full view of everyone. He collapsed to the ground, blood escaping onto the pavement, people crying and screaming – shocked! His loved ones, helpers, and the PSNI gathered round trying to stem the flow, to comfort him, collect witness statements, make some sense out of events. There seemed to be some confusion over whether an ambulance had been called. Emotions were getting very heated – they knew who the attacker was, the ambulance was delayed, the PSNI seemed a little distant.
Still no ambulance, more blood seemed to be leaking out, another woman arrived screaming and shouting – she saw his face – her scream was silent. Finally the ambulance arrived, and a cry of agony echoed through the empty street as he was lifted onto the stretcher.
In the distance, the youths of the Ardoyne were enjoying themselves with their faux-rioting, whilst a real future was unfolding for one man, and his family, which would further entrench divisions and maintain the inter-community alienation. Belfast is on the edge of the United Kingdom, and remains on the edge of a deterioration into further violence – the politicians may be working together but its not evident that the people are!