Inside the Ardoyne riot…

THIS is my footage of the beginning of the Ardoyne riots on July 13, filmed entirely – by chance rather than planning – from the republican side. In this respect, it gives some insight into the atmosphere behind the republican lines, the dynamics of the crowd, the tactics employed by both sides and the vicious intensity of the hatred towards the PSNI and loyalists. But best of all, it shows me getting splatted by a water cannon near the end. Anyway, here it is in all its crapness, and I’ve added the second and final part of my blog on this year’s Twelfth below the fold.The decision to walk from Shaftesbury Square to Ardoyne on Monday is not one I can readily explain. It was done on a whim. I was fed up with the rain that had delayed the return of the Orange parade from their Field, and had got chatting to a monitor for the Parades Commission, who was pessimistic about the situation in north Belfast.

There had been talk of a republican protest of some kind, and speculation over whether this would escalate into something more. But any escalation in the current situation would, I thought, not amount to much – a sit-down protest being removed by police perhaps, or a prolonged stand-off. I didn’t anticipate much serious trouble. So off I set.

Walking up towards Carlisle Circus, I spotted a group of people involved in some kind of alteration with the PSNI at Stanhope Street (pictured), just off Clifton Street. It didn’t seem very serious, so onwards. A few hundred metres more, and there’s trouble at Cambrai Street, though again, it was more a case of handbags at 10 paces in the time I watched. Riot police formed a line and Land Rovers piled up at the junction, but it didn’t appear to have much violent potential. I did think I might have been stopped by the police, but no, not a word.

And so, with more and more PSNI Land Rovers blaring their sirens on the way uphill towards Ardoyne, a chopper now overhead, and police turning civilian traffic away from the area, I carried on. At the bottom of the Crumlin Road, there had been hundreds of bandsmen and Orangemen milling about and getting on coaches, but from Cambrai Street until Ardoyne, I don’t think there was another solitary pedestrian.

Arriving up near the junction with Twaddell Avenue at about 7.30pm, the road ahead had been blocked by a line of police. A crowd was gathered in front of it, but people were keeping their distance and certainly not involved in any hostilities. Perhaps they were the residents or Sinn Fein supporters who had protested earlier with placards against the parade. I don’t know; perhaps a reader can help. They didn’t look too happy about the predicament they found themelves in, but at that time there was none of the violence that had already started around the corner, beside the famous Ardoyne shops. These businesses might get free global advertising, but they must have a hell of a time cashing in on it.

With the road ahead blocked, a woman was kind enough to direct me down Balholme Drive to where the main crowd had gathered in Estoril Park. You can wander around the ‘battleground’ at Google Street View here.

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Having reported on numerous riots in the past, thanks to Drumcree and Harryville, I had at least a rough idea of what to expect. But I also remembered how one BBC journalist had been badly injured in the back by a republican blast bomb the last time there was serious trouble in Ardoyne, and it occurred to me that this was the first time I would be observing events entirely from the point of view of the crowd attacking the police.

I think it’s fair to say that in most news reports on riots between state forces and crowds of angry civilians, the journalists, cameramen and photographers are mostly situated behind or close to the police lines. There is a risk, but it is as controlled a risk as possible, although another journalist was hit in the face by a ricocheting rock this time around. It doesn’t mean siding with the police, but it does give a certain perspective on events. The most obvious example I suppose is that rioters on TV throw stuff towards the camera, not away from it.

This time for me, the perspective was reversed – recording from the midst of those attacking the police. My video is entirely one-sided (though if you visit Youtube, search for Ardoyne and sort by ‘Newest first’ you can see other TV footage). It was not a conscious decision, happening more by accident than design, but there would definitely be no Land Rover to take cover behind this time should anything fly in my general direction. And once the trouble had started, I didn’t feel it was safe to cross over to the police lines.

I didn’t know any of the crowd (apart from one bloke, which was kinda weird) and didn’t know how they would react to a stranger with a camcorder. Like republican blogger Mark McGregor at the Twelfth, I was out of my comfort zone and unsure of the rules. Later, I filmed a rather brave (or foolhardy) cameramen for either BBC NI or UTV getting hassled and I think he left that side of the road shortly after. Yet the rioters and their supporters said as much to me about my presence as the PSNI officers did – absolutely nothing.

Most of the rioters were teenagers or men in their twenties, with a few older ones. Not many women. I’ve no idea who was local and who wasn’t, and I didn’t see anyone I recognised from Sinn Fein while I was there. If there was an internal republican battle for control of the Ardoyne agenda on the Twelfth, Sinn Fein lost big time.

Many of the stone-throwers were masked and hooded to prevent them being identified by the police video cameras. I was surprised that no-one challenged me, but grateful at the same time for the freedom to record. Perhaps there were too many ‘outsiders’ to know who was who. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Sinn Fein or the police had people reporting back from inside the crowd.

The stone-throwers obtained some of their ammunition by smashing up the corner of a wall on which a new mural – seen clear near the start of my video – had been painted. The mural, intended to promote Ardoyne as “a confident, colourful, creative community” according to the artist, had been only recently been unveiled by Irish president Mary McAleese. Someone shouted: “Yous are only wrecking your own community.” They were ignored. The sledgehammering of the wall might have been a practical necessity for rioters in need of more bricks to throw, but the symbolism of the ‘positive’ mural being trashed wasn’t lost on me. You can see the new mural in the video, and the old one here. You can view the new hole in the wall in Mal McCann’s photo here; the damage is on the left, above the woman’s head.

The Youtube video will tell you the story of the next couple of hours, compressed into less than 10 minutes. What the edited highlights don’t reveal are the periods of time where much less happened; where the PSNI’s water cannon fired aimlessly or the stone-throwers had no visible target. It seemed almost ritualistic; the ebb and flow of one side gaining a few yards, only for it to be taken back afterwards. There was almost a pattern to it – but the routines could lead to a false sense of security before they changed dramatically. And when they changed, it was with a bang – a blast bomb perhaps, fireworks or a petrol bomb.

Nor does the video capture the more serious events that occurred later that night – the handgun being fired at the PSNI, or the plastic bullets being fired at the rioters. It does show how the rioters used a hijacked Northern Ireland Water van – with their motto ‘Water is Precious’ emblazoned on the doors in a delicious irony – to try and block the path of the police water cannon. Sadly, the camcorder battery ran out before it was set ablaze, but there are some photos of it burning at the end of the video taken on my phone. Taking the close-up was a bit hairy, with one of the rioters shouting to get back in case it exploded. Think he’s seen too many Hollywood movies.

It was then I wondered why, after the parade had passed, the police were still present. If they had withdrawn after the Orangemen had left, surely there would no longer have been any target for the rioters? Maybe they had their reasons. In the time I was there, after the Orange parade had been shepherded through, the police were acting as a sponge, soaking up attack after attack without striking back seriously. I say ‘seriously’ because I can personally verfiy that the water cannon wasn’t on high pressure. Of course, later that night both police and rioters exchanged water for plastic bullets and fireworks for petrol bombs.

Once the battery had dried up on my rather wet mobile at about 9pm, it was time for home. With no phone and no way for a car to get to me, it meant walking back into the town centre, drenched. When I pulled a muscle trying to find an alternative way to the Crumlin Road through Ardoyne’s back streets, I wondered if someone up there had it in for me for the way I’d spent my Twelfth.

And that was it. Over the course of 11 hours, I’d witnessed Orangeism in its element and the dark underbelly of republicanism. There was evidence that in some areas the Orange Order is trying to move forward, though there is clearly much work to be done to rid the Twelfth of its more overt sectarianism in Belfast. And in Ardoyne, the story that unfolded was that there are some republicans still prepared to employ the tactics of the past, involving extreme violence against the police and loyalist marches.

It was a day I won’t forget in a hurry.