The Summer of 2011: Comments on the Violence and Political Reactions

Following rioting from Belfast to Derry, Magherafelt to Larne, Ballyclare and beyond in the past few weeks, it is interesting to assess the differing reactions of political leaders to the violent scenes that have prominently occupied our screens.

Whilst the First and Deputy First Ministers made a concerted effort to maintain a united leaderly front throughout the violent outbreaks that have plagued the north for the past month- with the notable exception of Peter’s UVF outreach following that organisation’s premeditated attack on the Short Strand- the notable difference between how DUP and Sinn Fein representatives condemned the violence of their respective communities is worth noting in some detail.

Nationalist violence

Nationalist rioting occurred firstly in the Short Strand area, following on from the UVF’s attack on the small catholic enclave in East Belfast. The violence was clearly of an intense nature for many hours, and over a period of two nights shots were fired by republicans in which a couple of loyalists and a press photographer were hurt.

The response of mainstream republican political leaders was one of condemnation of the violence, and numerous reports from the area have suggested that mainstream republican leaders had a number of verbal altercations with known dissident figures as the former sought to keep a lid on the violence from the nationalist end.

Subsequently, nationalist rioting first broke out in the Broadway area of Belfast on the 11th Night.

Robert McClenaghan and Jennifer McCann, both influential mainstream republican representatives in West Belfast, clearly condemned the Broadway rioters in forthright terms and sought to make clear that such individuals did not act in a manner representative of the local community.

Had they been of a mind to excuse the gratuitous violence visited upon the area by nationalist youths, they could have found several plausible excuses.

The fact that loyalist youths had stolen items from the local republican memorial garden in St. James’ just days before the rioting was clearly an act of provocation, and the presence of bonfires adorned with nationalist emblems just across the unofficial peaceline that is the Broadway roundabout could have been pointed out if the agenda was to provide some cover for the actions of the rioters.

But Robert McClenaghan and Jennifer McCann did not seek to obfuscate the matter. They vilified only those involved in wrecking the local neighbourhood and Mr McClenaghan even sought to make clear that there had been no provocation from within the protestant and unionist community on the night, an important addendum.

Furthermore, it has since emerged that a local residents group had distributed leaflets in the local area prior to the Twelfth of July inferring that families could face eviction from their Housing Executive properties if their children were involved in the violence.

Subsequent nationalist violence occurred in a number of parts of Belfast, Derry and elsewhere, and the consistent message from all strands of mainstream republican opinion was condemnatory.

That leadership is important as it helps to challenge stereotypes and formulate opinions within local communities, preventing people from lapsing into sectarian perceptions which tend to go largely unchallenged, not least at a time when community relations are traditionally stretched to their limits.

In one sense, it is in this type of scenario that the leadership skills and experience of Sinn Fein leaders has come to the fore. Rather than feel under pressure to avoid making conciliatory gestures at this most fractious of times, the Deputy First Minister was revealed just days before the Twelfth of July to have been lobbying the British government to make it easier for people born in the Republic to claim British citizenship, a gesture taken up in support of Donegal-born DUP MLA Willie Hay.

Loyalist Violence

Alas, this was not the same approach adopted by most unionist political leaders following the loyalist violence visited upon the unsuspecting residents of Ballyclare, the Short Strand and Magherafelt’s Leckagh estate.

The Unionist political reaction to the UVF-orchestrated violence in Short Strand could only be described as mealy-mouthed. Instead of condemning the sectarian violence for what it was, we were treated to a barely concealed attempt to justify the violence through claiming it was reactionary, a narrative shared by loyalists only too happy to be portrayed by their political representatives in a quasi-protector role. Even though the holes in that argument have been clearly exposed due to the contradictory nature of the subsequent comments of local loyalists, the cowardice of their political leaders will have meant that grassroots loyalism has remained unchallenged by unionist political leaders in an area where substantive evidence has long existed of a nefarious campaign by the local UVF leader to mobilise his organisation in the locality.

With regard to the violence in Ballyclare, the DUP South Antrim MP Willie McCrea, whilst opposing the violence, provided a media line seeking to emphasise an apology provided by the PSNI to loyalists for rioting when flags erected outside a catholic church were removed, accompanied by prominent loyalist spokesperson Ken Wilkinson.

No condemnation was uttered from unionist spokespersons of loyalists for engaging in the blatant act of sectarian intimidation which precipitated the PSNI action, and the subsequent re-erection of the flags by loyalists has earned not a word of critical comment from either unionist politicians nor the PSNI. Depressingly, unionist politicians used the occasion to point to the failure of the PSNI to remove Irish National flags erected in nationalist areas across many parts of the north, thereby deliberately obfuscating the issue, leaving Justice Minister David Ford to intervene appropriately and no doubt further consolidate his party’s growing support base within the liberal unionist community.

However, comments made by Lagan Valley DUP MLA Paul Girvan during one radio interview illustrate that the DUP have conceded that the erection of loyalist flags outside of a catholic church is a provocative action which should be opposed. During the interview, Girvan announced that his party had ensured that no Union Flags were erected outside of St Patrick’s Church in Lisburn this year, an issue which was the subject of this thread I posted last year.

The Magherafelt violence included a number of attacks on catholic owned homes in the estate, as well as an attack on the home of a member of the local District Policing Partnership.

Yet the Newsletter carried the reaction of two DUP representatives to the Magherafelt violence, a response depressingly typical:

A number of houses were targeted and police were attacked by missiles in the Leckagh estate after a mob blocked a road close to a bonfire site.

It is understood that one of the houses attacked is the home of a member of the local policing partnership.

The violence erupted simultaneously with the trouble in Ballyclare, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus.

Local DUP councillor Paul McLean said he did not believe the disturbances in Magherafelt were connected,

Sinn Fein, he claimed, had stoked tensions last week by their demands for the removal of a bonfire in neighbouring Castledawson.

“There has been whispers circulating that contractors were going to move in and take down the bonfires and this, as you can imagine, has really caused a lot of tension across the Magherafelt area,” said Mr McLean.

“I was down in Leckagh estate and I saw young people out cleaning up the estate after the trouble.

“I cannot say for sure that the attacks on homes were just sectarian.

“I think this was a situation that has got out of control and people from outside the area became involved – this is not something we want to see. There has been a lot of good work in Leckagh and I am hopeful that this will continue,” he added.

Party colleague Anne Forde, who lives in the estate, said the violence was not “purely sectarian” but a reaction to “Sinn Fein dominance” after the recent elections.

Thus, “Sinn Fein dominance” after recent elections is now an excuse for ‘retaliatory’ loyalist violence.

The mythical nature of loyalism’s ‘retaliatory’ violence

The attempt to portray the loyalist violence as reactive remains a consistent theme of unionist political leaders.

This is not only a fallacy but indicative of a mindset unwilling to attribute blame in a manner which may place the politicians apart from the paramilitaries within unionism. The default urge to perceive loyalist violence as the malign manifestation of a benign impulse remains too strong and therefore the political leadership required to face down paramilitary organisations which clearly have little intention of going away remains absent.

Hence the tolerance of the utterly bogus alienation narrative, as well as the willingness to stretch personal and political credibility by propagating the mythical excuses as a reason to provide a context for the violence.

There has been no attempt to attribute blame in an unqualified manner on the rioters of Ballyclare, Magherafelt or East Belfast, and consequently unionist politicians have missed another opportunity to provide a strong leadership message at a time when it is increasingly obvious that loyalist paramilitaries are cranking up their violence.

On that note, an interesting snippet carried by BBC Talkback (11/7/11) once again illustrates why we could do with a few investigative journalists looking to follow some fairly obvious trails.

Whilst reporting on the Ballyclare violence, a BBC Talkback reporter, Barbara Collins, in the town pointed out that local youths were going door to door apologising for the upset caused by the violence to some locals and offering a can of home heating oil to residents.

The questions immediately shouting out to be answered include who sent the youths around the doors and who provided the home heating oil, and was it a voluntary donation? Alas, nothing more has been heard of the matter, though at least the UUP MLA Danny Kinahan noted his concern (in a jovial manner) about where the oil may have come from in an interview conducted immediately after the youths had left the house concerned.

Unionist political leaders met with the representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries within hours of the outbreaks of violence in both East Belfast and Ballyclare, moves which it was claimed helped to diffuse tensions but which –in the case of Ballyclare- appeared to culminate in a unity of purpose to blame the PSNI for the violence.

It will be worth monitoring the arrest rate with regard to these riots to ensure that the price extracted by the loyalists wasn’t a reduction in the arrest rate amongst loyalists in these areas, and with that in mind, it must be hoped that the unfortunate PSNI apology does not detract the police from arresting and charging a significant number of loyalists in the south east Antrim area.

To date, the absence of any PSNI arrests in that area must be a serious cause for concern for anybody interested in promoting the PSNI as a non-partisan police service.

The significance of the application/ rejection of the alienation narrative

Alienation is a much vexing term, and its frequent application invites ridicule. Yet it is entirely appropriate to acknowledge that it is in areas of relative social and economic deprivation that disaffection with the peace and political processes has and will always fester.

This is nothing new and nor is it novel to our part of the world. It requires strong political leadership to minimise the opportunities for those with a destabilising agenda to exploit natural feelings of disaffection for their own political agenda. That rioting occurred almost exclusively in nationalist and loyalist working classes areas is therefore not surprising.

The alienation narrative which was put forward as an excuse for the loyalist rioting in East Belfast could also have been brought in to play by nationalist representatives. Indeed, given that all of the objective criteria point to working class nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry as predominating the most deprived wards across the Six Counties, such reasoning could be viewed as even more plausible than when put forward by loyalists.

So why was the alienation narrative not taken up by nationalist political representatives as an excuse for the rioting?

Martin McGuinness did not follow Peter Robinson’s lead in seeking to meet with dissident republican leaders in the midst of the violence, and nor did he approach Robinson to agree to a civil servant being appointed to examine the issues allegedly causing the violence in the localities where nationalists rioted on and after the Twelfth of July.

His reasoning was very clear. There is no appetite within nationalist political circles to provide ‘grey’ areas in relation to judgements on the violence precisely because mainstream republicans are only too well aware that so doing will give succour to dissident republicans and blur the peace process narrative.

Political opponents will undoubtedly point out that Sinn Fein has not always opposed unrest at street level,  and the downplaying of a political motive to the nationalist violence by mainstream republican spokespersons is a transparently obvious attempt to prevent others from seizing political ground from mainstream republicans who are now firmly embedded in the northern state’s institutions.

This strategy is not without risk and it has meant that Sinn Fein’s credibility is contingent upon the rhetoric of a non-partisan PSNI being transformed into a living reality, something that is damaged when the PSNI kow-tow to loyalists in Ballyclare and seem to operate two standards when it comes to making arrests of loyalists and republicans.

Ironically, only a handful of years after Sinn Fein has agreed to encourage the nationalist and republican community to support the PSNI, it would now appear that Sinn Fein has a more credible claim to be a law and order party than the DUP, who have yet to fully appreciate the need to stand against those from within their own community who are acting against the peace and be prepared to vilify them in precisely the same manner they seek to have Sinn Fein stand against dissident republicans.