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.