Rioting: Northern Ireland Street Theatre

As the violence over flags inevitably wanes, debates over the legitimacy of loyalist actions will continue.

What will be obscured in the discussion is a key feature of rioting in Northern Ireland – namely that it is a controlled performance and creative spectacle.

A burning car in the middle of the road is a striking scene, whether watched in delight or disgust. Petrol bombs hang in the air like Chinese Lanterns; fireworks and police vans light up the night sky; bricks and bolts rain down like confetti.

There are sinister intentions and sadistic gestures but, like any group of actors, the protagonists control their actions. They ‘exercise restraint’. They are careful not to ‘let things boil over’.

And if they want a mass audience, a well-timed stand-off is the perfect opportunity to star on the local and international stage. Either in the role of a masked provocateur or self-righteous spokesperson.

Rioting in Northern Ireland is a staged drama that sits alongside many other events in the political calendar. It allows for its participants to become temporarily visible and encourages a feeling of significance.

It is a genre of street theatre and many in the media and public, through their willingness to film and watch it, are its most devoted patrons.

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  • keano10

    Dead Air Radio,

    It might appear to be artistic, theatrical and engrossing when you are watching on your HD television from the comfort of your own home, but it’s a very different story when those colourful blazing petrol bombs are directed at your home with little children sleeping upstairs. Or when those same innocent little kids come crying down the stairs as the gunfire shatters the nightime peace as they sleep.

    I wished I lived in your world Dead Air Radio. And I wished what on earth was the point of this post…?

  • Hi Keano – The intention is not to sanitise violence or underestimate its effect. The point is about the ‘spectacle’, how people deliberately create it and perform in it. And for attention or gain, which they often receive.

  • Granni Trixie

    dead Air

    many models of public behaviour at the start of the troubles in Ni
    Seem to
    mimic civil rights/hippie protests seen via television,then in its infancy. This time round the innovation of social media has to be factored into the dynamics.

    I am surprised that we do not have more analysis from anthropologists about these ritualistic flag spectacles.

  • sherdy

    Maybe we have the law of unintended consequence at work here. These 40 days and nights of loyalist riots were certainly instigated by the DUP, assisted by the UUP, but things quickly spiralled out of their control.
    The baton was then taken up by the usual UVF mouthpieces, trying to appear relevant to our sick counties, but now their enthusiasm has been grabbed by the young guns, who have no experience of trouble or its consequences.
    Have you ever seen as many nutcases so happy to have a microphone or a camera pointed at them?
    Sky, BBC, CNN, Russia Today, Al Jazeera all making heroes of them – life couldn’t get any better!

  • aquifer

    When people are masked they are clearly contemplating criminal and violent acts, not peaceful protest. Acts that are also threatening when masks are routinely used by armed conspiracies that murder to impose their will.

    The masked “performance” is a display of a threat to murder.

    Masking during demonstrations is illegal.

    Anyone charged yet?

    Before and masked pictures should be evidence enough.

    Get the PSNI some better cameras to pick up details of clothing and put the pictures on the web. Fuzzy at first to encourage young people to come forward of their own accord, or to have their parents send them to the PSNI.

    It is called accountability.

    We already have plenty of unmasked DUP/ UUP pictures.

  • babyface finlayson

    It’s an interesting take on events. There is certainly an element of performance about a lot of it, though how controlled it is, is hard to say.
    You have to wonder how much the thrill of the media gaze contributes to bringing them out night after night.
    Keano10, I don’t see how examining that aspect of things, in any way diminishes the real awfulness for those on the receiving end.

  • derrydave

    For young people, riots are fun and exciting, and provide a great opportunity to not only impress your mates, but also to impress the local object of your affection. Some of my best memories as a kid were of the craic at the riots – always more as a bystander than anything else to be honest ! The fun and excitement of riots for young people will always be there (hence the reason young nationalists flock to Ardoyne every year for the guaranteed action).
    It is also generally true however that riots can only be facilitated by adults, and can usually be ended by adults quite easily if there is a consensus. Sinn Fein have been very successful in this regard in many areas of NI – what we are seeing obviously in East Belfast is the facilitating of these riots by elements within Loyalism (and initially in fact by elements withing mainstream Unionism). I’m actually surprised at how long these have gone on, and although I have supported the PSNI’s approach to date I now believe that it’s time for a change in tactics. If the police are openly stating that a few well-known UVF men are directing this, then go pick them up and put the pressure on – if things still don’t improve then lets start arresting anybody who blocks the roads and refuses to clear them immediatly. It’s time this shit stopped and we all moved on.

  • For all their protestations about their Britishness and preserving their British culture, the loyalists seem to really take their cultural cue from their republican rivals or enemies. The two main communities in the North have created a common Ulster culture that is distinctly different from both Irish culture to the South and British (mainland that is in Britain) culture to the East. Parades, murals, masked figures posing with Armalites and AKs, and political wing paramilitary parties (as distinct from the continuity paramilitary parties in the Republic) are all aspects of this common working-class culture. Loyalists and republicans watch the same television shows, watch the same football games–although cheering for opposite sides, and receive the same dole checks. They also share the same political culture–except for the flags, which is maybe why they are so important.

  • It’s a vision never dreamt of before for unionists that
    N Ireland was no more theirs. It’s as in the past theirs to do as they saw fit, regardless of any civilised norms. In that context, it’s no longer theirs. So how are they coping with reality now? Not terribly well is the answer. The colony is now for the natives to control at last. The sectarian hatred they have for the natives is showing itself in it’s true colours at last.

  • tacapall

    Is this another Michael Stone excuse or an admission that those rioters are all puppets on strings, if its the latter then whos pulling whos strings when it comes to the UVF and British intelligence. Given the close relationship between the two parties that has emerged during various inquiries Its unbelievable that the MI5 headquarters just up the road in East Belfast from where the violence is being organised and directed have not used those intelligence skills to bring under control the violence.

  • Alias

    A lot of red herrings have been introduced for the purpose of distracting observers from the actual reason why the protests are occurring – and the above thread is certainly one of the more inventive.

    The actual reason, of course, is that people are protesting about the systematic removal of symbols of Britishness from civic society. In short, they oppose the form of identity-cleansing that is orchestrated by the other tribe.

    Other red herrings include:

    They’re unemployed, and that’s what they’re really protesting about.
    They’re unemployed, and therefore they have too much time on their hands.
    They’re puppets of MI5 and the loyalist godfathers.
    They’re teenagers, and they’re just bored.
    They’re sectarian scumbags.
    They feel disenfranchised from the broader society.
    The UVF is using them to deter supergrass proceedings.

    There are dozens of such red herrings, and all of them are designed to distract attention from the actual cause of the trouble.

  • Mick Fealty


    I’d point out that some communities are locked in a certain kind of misery 24/7 and that has little to do with the kind of spectacle DAR is talking about:

    It has nothing to do with Michael Stone, and everything to do with grabbing the limelight for a small fringe group of people who have no capital in the show on the hill.

    Rioting as a publicity wheeze worked for Ardoyne in the end. Cost the state enough over a sufficiently long period of time and they come on to your side, is the logic.

    Welcome to disaffection NI. This and the dissident’s murder campaign against police and prison officers is becoming the only Opposition we are likely to have in the near term.

    I doubt they have it has the capacity to become acute but it could become chronic.

    BTW, MI5 is in Holywood, not East Belfast. And if you are planning to entertain us to yet another conspiracy theory, please don’t…

    You’ve been in and out of Slugger on red cards a lot recently mostly because you seem not to understand or care about the difference between fair comment and honest to goodness libel.

    We can only talk about what we know… or with some latitude, what we think we know…

  • babyface finlayson

    Apart from the flag at City Hall, what specifically do you mean by
    “systematic removal of symbols of Britishness from civic society.”?

  • tacapall

    Mick Hollywood is just up the road from East Belfast you could walk to it from Short Strand, but thats besides the point as im sure you know fine well what Im talking about in regard to why certain UVF individuals are being allowed to direct the violence that has been occurring these past 40 nights. Its hardly a conspiracy theory although it was denied for the last 40 years by everyone except nationalists, but now even the British Prime minister admitted that collusion has occurred, are we supposed to believe that relationship has ended after almost 100 years. The British security forces and the loyalist paramilitaries have been wedded and bedded to each other since the foundation of the Northern state. The RUC was recruited from former UVF men, and the B Specials provided a handy sideline for loyalists until its demise in 1969. Then came the UDR and the RIR and now the PSNI, the organisations changed, the names changed but are they really any different in their modus operandi. Am I libelling anyone by stating those facts or opinions as I could point you in the direction of pages upon pages of evidence. Yes I did get a red card for stating what I and many others believe to be the truth, conjecture I agree in regard to the individual mentioned, but no different than the accusations about Gerry Adams past, but your the ref and its your site so you make the rules.

    By the way just how did the rioting in Ardoyne work publicity wise. Do they not have Orange Order parades going past there anymore ?

  • derrydave

    ‘…the organisations changed, the names changed but are they really any different in their modus operandi.’

    Tacapall, absolutely they are different in their modus operandi – claiming otherwise simply discredits any arguement you put forward. The PSNI is light years away from the old RUC in how they police the community in RN areas. My limited dealings with the RUC whilst growing up in Carnhill in Derry City was negative in the extreme – their attitude in any dealings I had with them was always sneering, aggressive, and antagonistic. Their response to any civil disturbances similarly was aggressive in the extreme, with plastic bullets fired at the first sign of trouble – thousands fired during days of heavy rioting (in my youth it was common for kids to collect them after they were fired and me and my pals had loads of them).

    I’ve had the need in recent years to deal with the PSNI on a number of occasions and I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive to say the least. The professionalism and friendly, helpful attitude truly surprised me and I would have nothing but praise for the individual officers I dealt with. It’s this kind of policing which is making all the difference in RN communities today and which is slowly but surely leading to a respect for the professional service provided. Likewise the approach of the PSNI in difficult situations of civil unrest and rioting has been nothing but professional and considered – plastic bullets are now used as a last resort (rather than a first response) and dialogue is always encouraged as an answer to local difficulties.

    Yes, this of course means that the PSNI is now criticised for being too lenient in their response to rioting and protests, however that is a much better position to be in than the overly aggressive and violent response previously. It’s all a balancing act and of course the PSNI just can’t win, however to claim their modus operandi is the same as the old RUC’s is simply dishonest.

  • Mick Fealty

    Last first.

    They got a ruling from the Parades Commission against the Orange last year, even though it was they who rioted in 2009 and 2010. Master stroke on the part of Ardoyne republicans, but it has opened a door to another low level summer of hell for a whole host of communities going forward.

    It’s well worth reading Better Together’s analysis from the summer on this:

    Second, we’ve known about collusion for a long time. But it doesn’t quite work in the way you suggest. Once the handler overplays their hand their contact is dead in the water.

    Here’s a useful overview from Newton Emerson on the ever moving lunch that is collusion:

    On the Holywood/East Belfast thing, I was just pointing out that details matter. If I get pinged on it, which I did quite severely at the weekend, I fess up and try to be more careful going forwards.

    I can only trust that others view the imperative to be accurate in the same way.

  • A T Q Stewart’s Narrow Ground has this wonderful quotation from 1825 – so there is a certain historical continuity:

    “I never saw a richer country, or, to speak my mind, a finer people; the worst of them is the bitter and envenomed dislike which they have to each other. Their factions have been so long envenomed, and they have such narrow ground to do their battle in, that they are like people fighting with daggers in a hogshead.” .. – Sir Walter Scott, 1825

    and North Belfast, with its patchwork of communities, appears to have even more narrow ground than East Belfast.

    Tony had this and more to say about a century and a half of riots:

    No one who has been caught in a Belfast riot against his will is likely to regard it as one of the higher forms of human activity, which is one reason why most of the population of Belfast prefer to watch riots on television… but it is a naive and fundamental error to regard rioting as a ‘mindless’ and irrational mode of human behaviour. Stone throwing, for example, is a military art of considerable sophistication and great antiquity. Even in the 20th century, well-organized stone throwing can inflict very serious casualties on armed and disciplined troops who are forbidden to shoot the stone throwers.

    These soldiers might as well be Roman legionaries, for all the good their modern weapons are; their only protection is a shield, a steel helmet and a visor. Schoolboys can dance right up to the armoured vehicles and launch a brick or a nailbomb with deadly accuracy, but woe to the soldier who fires a single round, with or without orders; not the least of the rioters’ advantages is in the field of propaganda. The stone throwers may be barbarians, savages, Neanderthal men, but from a military point of view, they know what they are doing. Their art has been perfected in the streets of Belfast and Derry, Lurgan and Portadown, for a century and a half at least.

  • tacapall

    Mick was that ruling not imposed because of the antics of a UVF tribute band outside St Patricks Chapel ?

    Its nice the way people can humorize the law of the land involving itself with the murder of its citizens Mick, but sure this is the sick counties. When I see those police officers who aided and abetted loyalists in the murder of innocent civilians many times, Mount Vernon UVF or the handing over to the UDA of weapons that were later used to murder 7 innocent people I will change my opinion of the PSNI and the British intelligence services.

    Derrydave tell that to Martin Corey’s family or Marion Price or all those peaceful protestors beaten and dragged off the Crumlin Road and charged with causing an obstruction to allow the Orange Order and its outriders from the UVF to pass. I have no doubt there are sincere PSNI officers who go about enforcing the law in an impartial manner and who treat the public at large with civility, but I’ve yet to meet one and unfortunately changing a name or a symbol on a hat doesn’t mean the modus operandi has changed or the mindsets of those officers still in the PSNI, who in the past were wedded to a culture of deciding who lived and who died in the enforcement of the law depending on the value of information and usefullness of an informant or agent of the state.

  • Mick Fealty


    The ruling (be up the road by 4pm) was made before the 12th July. [It didn’t appease the Ardoyne BTW…] The circling band outside took place on the day itself.

    See what I mean about the detail being important?

    If you are not minding the detail, then you are in danger of being taken in by spectacle and your team’s propaganda.

  • derrydave

    Tacapall, just out of curiosity, have you actually had any dealings with the PSNI personally ? Or are you speaking in a purely theoretical manner ? (apologies, but I don’t know if you live in the North or elsewhere). Just curious.
    I do retain concerns on the whole ‘ínternment by remand’ theory of some, however you have to admit if you can count on the fingers of one hand the people who claim to be suffering from this then times have certainly changed (doesn’t excuse the policy if this is what is actually happening on occasion).
    All in all however it is absird to claim that things have not improved massively in policing in the last decade or so.

  • “Here’s a useful overview from Newton Emerson”

    It does leave out the Irish securocrats as well as the UK and Ireland governments but listeners, perhaps, should be warned about an earlier example of swearing by the presenter.

    There are two types of securocrats – those who deal with internal relationships and those who deal with external ones – and so it would be possibly for them to be implementing opposing agendas. The presenter fails to even mention such nuances.

    I collude with all sorts of people but, hopefully, it’s for the greater public good.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s a piece about constructed narratives… And how the term securocrat has been used, not about what it actually means.

    In other words, beware of Greeks baring gifts…

  • tacapall

    Mick I dont support using violence in any way and Im not a part of any team, especially those who would end a human life in the pursuit of any goal, but the law must be applied equally to all and it must be seen to apply to all. I do understand the PSNI’s reluctance to tackle head on school children rioting, it serves no purpose in making a bad situation worse by taking any sort of action that would lead to a child being seriously injured or even lead to a fatality, but it must be clear that the rioters are puppets on strings and the PSNI and British intelligence know who is pulling those strings the point I am making is why those puppet masters are not being arrested or pursued in a similar fashion thats being used against Marion Price and Martin Cory.

    I’ll take your 12th of July observation on the chin.

  • tacapall

    Derrydave I come from the Falls Road and yes I have had many dealings with both the RUC and the PSNI and none were what you would call civil.

  • Harry Flashman

    “The PSNI is light years away from the old RUC”

    In fairness Dave the RUC were actually a fairly professional police force in their day, and really shouldn’t be judged by the experiences of a teenager in a working class nationalist estate in Derry in the 1980’s. I dare say the sneering and arrogance wasn’t all coming from one side in your interaction with the peelers back then.

    For the most part the RUC officers (with one or two notable exceptions – ye know who I’m talking about Inspector ****, ye ignorant fecker) I dealt with in Derry were professional and businesslike. They remained calm and carried out their duties coolly and for the most part professionally through exceptional policing circumstances.

    In large part I might suggest that your experiences with the PSNI today as a middle-aged man would have been precisely the same in similar circumstances with the RUC back in the 70s and 80s.

    The use of plastic bullets has of course, as you rightly say, diminished exponentially. My last couple, picked up the 1990s, disintegrated a few months back, the tropical heat out here has that effect on latex/plastics, shame really they were interesting souvenirs.

  • derrydave

    Will have to agree to disagree with you there Harry. They absolutely should be judged by the experiences of a teenager in a working class nationalist estate in derry in the 1980’s – this is the only experience I have and so is the only judgement I can make. The reality in working class nationalist estates in Derry in the 1980’s & 1990’s was that there was no police ‘service’ at all to speak of. Every experience I had of the RUC was negative and in my opinion their attitude was deeply sectarian. Yes, there was fault on both sides, and to be perfectly honest the treatment I received from the RUC never really bothered me as I hated them anyway, however I also witnessed truly good, decent people (I don’t consider myself in this bracket obviously :-)) being treated with complete disdain by the RUC and this left more of a mark than anything i experienced personally. As far as the RUC were concerned everyone living in Carnhill and areas like it were ‘the enemy’ and were treated as such.

  • DC

    It has nothing to do with Michael Stone, and everything to do with grabbing the limelight for a small fringe group of people who have no capital in the show on the hill.

    Seamus Close the anti-Gay former Alliance Party man was on Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics.

    He was arguing that Stormont has an over-supply of representatives and that the disconnect cannot be put down to a lack of representation and no one being there for these protesters in terms of there not being a listening ear.

    But could it not be that over-supply actually breeds complacency and makes politicians less attentive and more inefficient whereby MLAs just turn up to work for servings of Stormont tea and coffee and hope that others higher up the political food chain take up the heavy lifting?

    Based on the lack of output from OFMDFM this heavy lifting and momentum from higher up just isn’t happening.

  • “It’s a piece about constructed narratives… And how the term securocrat has been used, not about what it actually means.”

    It’s an incomplete piece which therefore fosters misconceptions and, at times, leads to the wrong people or organisations being blamed.

  • Barnshee

    It may be considered as “Street theatre” but “the entrance fee” has already been paid by the British tax payer and he /she ain`t paying any more.

    Villiers has wisely stayed out of –“you are now in charge sort it out yourselves”

    This mess now has to be cleared up out of the subvention. Millions wasted that should have gone elsewhere —-plus ca change….???

  • Harry Flashman

    Context is everything Dave.

    I guarantee you that there wasn’t a working class area in the world in the 1980s be it Carnhill, Ballymun, Toxteth, the Gorbals, the Bronx, or the foubourgs of Paris, the favellas of Rio or the slums of Karachi where the local cops weren’t hated by the young lads hanging about street corners and where the cops themselves had little affinity with the residents. The RUC were hardly unique in that regard much though we self-obsessed Irish tend to believe only we have experience of such problems.

    There was a huge difference with the RUC however, there was actually a very real and heavily armed enemy lurking in places like Carnhill who were determined to murder as a many police officers as they could. Despite this, I still say the RUC for the most part in Derry from the mid 1970s on behaved professionally and correctly with most citizens of the city whom they had dealings with, they were not beacons of virtue, they were cops working in a stressful environment but generally they acted well in day to day operations.

    Just as a small counterpart, when it came to the RUC in your neck of the woods it does no harm to remember that at least two decent honourable bobbies trying to carry out the routine community police duties that most citizens would demand of their police were murdered in particularly cowardly fashion in the 80s. Yet still the police continued to carry out policing of Carnhill and Shantallow and didn’t leave those areas to the fascist gangs that tried to dominate them.

    I too remember Derry in the 1980s and in the struggle between the RUC and their enemies I know that I’m glad about who eventually prevailed.

  • Alias

    Babyface, the so-called equality agenda given in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 where a statutory obligation on public authorities to have due regard to the need to promote “equality of opportunity” between persons of different “political opinion” is extended, politically, to censor symbols of Britishness from civic society rather than, as it was intended, to prevent discrimination in employment opportunities.

  • babyface finlayson

    This is possibly off topic but I was hoping you could offer specific examples?
    I don’t mean to be obtuse but what are symbols of Britishness apart from the flag?
    Is a recognition of Irishness in civic society the same as an erosion of Britishness?

  • Alias

    Sure, you could start with the name of the state and then go to the head of the state (her portrait banned from her parliament buildings in Northern Ireland. From there, you can go to the flag protestors and look across the barricades (not quite erected yet) to the symbols on the uniforms of the PSNI. The question is not “Where can I see evidence of tribal, political objection to symbols of Britishness in civic society?” but “Where can I not?”

    At the heart of it is a fraud that is perpetuated on both tribes by their tribal elders. In the case of the ‘nationalist’ tribal elders, the fraud is that removing the symbols of British sovereignty is the same thing as removing British sovereignty; and in the case of the unionist tribal elders, the fraud is that British sovereignty is the same thing as British self-determination.

  • Alias

    “Is a recognition of Irishness in civic society the same as an erosion of Britishness?”

    I’m not quite sure how removing the flag from City Hall is a “recognition of Irishness”?

  • tacapall

    You have it all wrong Alias, these people believe protestant culture like marching and destroying the environment with bonfires on the 12 July is Britishness, that harp and shamrock on the RUCs badge can hardly be called a symbol of Britishness. As for the portrait of the queen lets put a portrait of the immaculate conception beside her, whats the difference they are both born from fairytales.

  • Alias

    Bonfires haven’t been banned, so that’s not what they’re protesting about.

  • tacapall

    No I know but burning tyres and rubbish is, maybe you’ve heard of the grants to encourage them to light beacons instead.

  • Alias

    Sure, but that’s the EU for you…

  • babyface finlayson

    Maybe I should have said ‘would’ a recognition of Irishness be the same as an erosion of Britishness?
    Do you see a way for civic spaces to be more acceptable to those who do not feel British, whilst still recognizing your Britishness?
    The name of the state has not changed or been eroded I don’t think. Those who could not call it Northern Ireland, never did and those who do always will.

  • Alias

    “Do you see a way for civic spaces to be more acceptable to those who do not feel British, whilst still recognizing your Britishness?”

    I’m as close to being British as Mary Harney is to being slim.

    In regard to City Hall, the Council’s own equality assessment report said that there was not a simple complaint received about the flag flying there. It found that just 3% of the respondents said that they found the flag objectionable.

    Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that particular civic space did not need “to be more acceptable” to the overwhelming majority of the city. It was just fine and dandy as it was.

    The decision to remove the flag had not a single iota to do with equality: it was purely a political decision.

    More accurately, it a political class from one tribe using the guise of politics to score sectarian goals against the other tribe.

  • Alias

    Typo: “…not a single complaint…”

  • Thanks for comments regarding the initial post: Northern Ireland Street Theatre.

    The ‘extent of control’ in the performance is a tricky issue. There is an apparent loss of control, which is part of the appeal and thrill for many, including voyeurs.

    But at the same time there is decision-making, preparations and strategy at play.

    Physical barriers – whether walls or the police – often ensure that the location is controlled or, to continue the metaphor, the stage is limited to a particular area.

    The range of weapons and protective measures (or props), also control the possible outcomes – i.e. when a brick is thrown at police wearing protective gear, the degree of risk is calculated and limited.

    It is accepted that there are many motivating factors for participants in riots. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile thinking about how the ‘riot performance’ fulfils a basic desire for fame or notoriety, and attention (including female attention – interesting point derrydave)

    It is also useful to consider why destruction is creative for many people; how it is possible to become a man, or a group, through violent acts and standoffs; how this fits within a political culture.

    Many groups and individuals are defined through their exchanges with other groups. Sometimes these exchanges are violent, often they are a spectacle.

  • babyface finlayson

    “I’m as close to being British as Mary Harney is to being slim.”
    Well I daresay she aspires to being slim.
    Sorry for the assumption though.
    I agree the vote on the flag was probably about tribal politics, but that does not mean there is no need for a bit of sharing in our civic spaces