Why Belfast's Streets Burn Again

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Sporadic street violence has been a fact of life for so long in Belfast that residents of the city refer cynically to "recreational rioters" — youths thought to spend weekend nights tossing bricks at each other and the police, only to retreat when the icy Irish rain or the working week intervenes. But the traffic jams that hit early Monday afternoon as commuters emptied the city were a sign that people knew something more serious was going on. That night saw the third successive outbreak of serious rioting in Protestant neighborhoods, violence that has caused another dip in Northern Ireland's roller coaster peace process.

The unrest kicked off after a march by the Protestant Orange Order was diverted about 100 yards to avoid a Catholic neighborhood. Marchers clashed with police who blocked their preferred route, and were joined quickly by members of two loyalist paramilitary groups. They coordinated attacks that spread to towns outside Belfast. The burning cars and rubble-strewn streets they left in their wake were a sharp reminder of just how severe this outburst had been. Earlier this year, the Police Service of Northern Ireland had congratulated itself for not having to use plastic bullets, a riot control weapon, for two and a half years — last weekend, police and soldiers fired more than 400 of the projectiles. Perhaps more significantly, the British soldiers also used live ammunition when they came under fire from loyalist gunmen — the first such attacks in years.

The violence was startling in part because the summer had started out relatively well. After years of dithering and delays, the Irish Republican Army had finally declared an end to its armed campaign and announced that it would decommission its entire arsenal. That promised disposal of thousands of weapons under scrutiny by international observers, which the IRA has promised would be completed by mid-October, may have already started in secret arms dumps around Ireland.

However, the apparent waning of the IRA threat hasn't stopped Protestants from feeling threatened. Success or failure in Northern Ireland is often measured by how well the other side is doing, and right now Catholic society exudes confidence. The nationalist camp is still well short of its goal of a united Ireland, but its politicians have often shown remarkable dexterity in delicate negotiations with the British and Irish governments.

Protestant leaders say this week's riots are symptomatic of their community's deepening detachment from the peace process: A narrow majority of Protestants initially favored the 1998 Good Friday accord, but have since turned against it. That's mainly because in the 11-year struggle to get the IRA to turn a ceasefire into permanent peace, they believe the IRA’s gunmen have won too many concessions. Their most recent cause for anger was a British government decision to disband a mainly-Protestant militia. The upsurge of violence may also be a simple resistance to sharing power with nationalists — certainly the Orangemen who sparked this bout of rioting aren't as interested in talking to Catholics as they are in marching past their houses. And their leaders have refused to condemn the violence that followed their parade.

The rioting cast a pall over the British and Irish governments' hopes of using momentum generated by the IRA's disarmament declaration to restore a stable local government in early 2006. Mitchell Reiss, a U.S. State Department envoy, came to Belfast this week to help pave the way for a new round of talks, and ended up criticizing Unionist leaders who blamed anyone but the rioters for the unrest. The talks will probably take place anyway, but they may not be enough to revive Protestant interest in the settlement. And so, having spent more than five years bringing the IRA on board, mediators may now find themselves spending more years coaxing the unionists into a deal.