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Riots on the streets of Belfast do not mark a return to the bad old days

2012 September 4
by Paul Vallely

Rioting on the streets of Belfast seems a reversion to the bad old days. With the sight of an Orange band marching round in circles, playing a sectarian tune, in front of a Catholic church, many will be tempted to say nothing has changed. But that would be wrong.

Outsiders see a symmetry within the psycho-geography of Northern Ireland between its Protestant and Catholic halves. But that is superficial. The Protestant Loyalist working class community of the past was one where boys left school at 16 and moved straight into well-paid jobs in the shipyards or heavy engineering from which Catholics were excluded. Today those jobs have gone but the culture which placed a low premium on education remains in a community where unemployment has become engrained to the third generation amid areas of sink housing.

By contrast the Catholic working class placed much greater emphasis on education and also participated in political activity where many of their Protestant counterparts restricted themselves to paramilitary groups, Unionist politics being largely a middle-class preserve. With the legislating away of institutional anti-Catholic discrimination over the past decades the Catholic community has a lift beneath its wings which is distinctly absent in working class Loyalist areas whose paramilitaries were behind this week’s riots. Marches and parades – and disputes about them – are the tribal badges which attach to this divide.

Some see all this as a sign of inadequacy in a peace process which was too much a top down rather than bottom up process. These riots, critics say, are the bottom revolting. That may be true, but peace would never have come about had politicians waited on grassroots initiatives.

Politics has delivered a peace in which the economy, investment and tourism have been normalised.  The property market in Belfast is showing clear signs of recovery, except in Loyalist north Belfast, which tells its own story. But there has been no big peace dividend in terms of new jobs for either working class community. Where politics has failed is in the attempt to replace the much-criticised Parades Commission which places conditions on Republican and Loyalist marches. Politicians on both sides came up with an alternative in 2010 but it was shelved after opposition from the Orange Order which, perversely, had been the Commission’s biggest critic. The politicians gave up too easily in the face of Orange intransigence. They are now paying the price through the riots.

One big constructive development has been that Presbyterian and Anglican church leaders, who have previously given tacit support to the Orange Order, have this week roundly condemned it.  The Loyalist unemployed need jobs. But the Orange Order also needs to know that all sides of opinion – from Martin McGuinness to the Moderator of the Presbyterian church – are intent on moving in a very different direction, leaving them to continue marching round in circles.

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