East Belfast violence is mainly about territory

 

Nationalists and loyalists blame each other for fomenting trouble in east Belfast, writes Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor

Nationalists and loyalists on both sides of the dividing line in east Belfast were yesterday surveying the wreckage of the previous night, reflecting on the violence and terror they had just come through, and dreading more of the same and possibly worse.

British soldiers and officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland were also recovering from a bruising night in which 19 police officers were injured. One of the officers is being treated for a gunshot wound to the leg.

Three others were also shot, two loyalists reportedly wounded by a republican gunman and a loyalist gunman hit by police.

A bus driver was injured by flying glass when shots were fired at his vehicle.

Assistant Chief Constable Mr Alan McQuillan was in no doubt that the IRA, the UVF and UDA were involved in the disturbances.

Why the violence has shifted from north to east Belfast is not clear. But as usual nationalists and loyalists are blaming each other for fomenting the trouble. Each side says it was defending its loyalist or nationalist area from attack.

Objective locals said that "of course" the IRA and UVF in particular but also the UDA were engaged in the trouble.

Northern Security Minister Ms Jane Kennedy agreed that this raised questions about the paramilitary ceasefires but in the nationalist Short Strand and in the neighbouring loyalist areas that issue is academic relative to the notion of "each side's paramilitaries" protecting homes and families from tribal threat.

And centrally that is what these vicious, sectarian days and nights of violence were about: territory. Nationalists argue that loyalists are trying to force them from their homes. Loyalists claim that nationalists are trying to encroach into "their" terrain.

This is a very old and dangerous problem that cannot be ignored because it is an example of a deeper malaise that in the past erupted into wider and fatal sectarian strife. In 1972 a number of people were killed and injured during serious inter-communal violence in the Short Strand area. There has been regular trouble there since.

Picture Short Strand as a nationalist enclave on the predominantly Protestant east side of Belfast bounded triangle-fashion by the loyalist Newtownards and Albertbridge roads, and the Lagan River.

This is an area where contrariwise nationalists have the Northern siege mentality and loyalists have an atavistic sense of being over-run. It's certainly not fertile ground for common-sense politics and community attitudes to prevail although ultimately that is the only way the lid can be put back, however temporarily, on this problem.

Looking back on the violence through Monday evening into yesterday morning few could disagree with the warning from Mr McQuillan and PSNI acting Chief Constable Mr Colin Cramphorn that if both sides don't retreat from the edge of the "abyss" some one is going to be killed.

Monday marked the fourth night of consecutive violence in east Belfast. The first serious incident happened around 6.15 p.m. when two loyalists in their 20s were shot in the Cluan Place area by a suspected republican gunman firing from the nationalist Clandeboye estate side of the "peace wall".

One of the men was in a stable condition in hospital with a chest wound while the second man was treated for a wound to his foot.

The violence escalated throughout the evening with, at different stages, about 1,000 people from both sides engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. The trouble flared at the interface between Cluan Place and the Clandeboye estate, at entrances to Short Strand and along the Lower Newtownards and Albertbridge roads.

Around 8.30 p.m. a bus driver was showered with breaking glass when a loyalist gunman fired on his vehicle. Bus services were suspended in order to protect drivers, passengers and pedestrians.

There were further serious clashes around 11 p.m. which lasted for about 90 minutes.

A police officer sustained a gunshot wound to his lower leg around midnight during incidents in which loyalist gunfire was directed at British army and police lines.

Police said 13 rounds were fired at the security forces and six shots returned, one of which injured a loyalist gunman who was dragged away from the scene.

The extent of his injuries was not known because up to yesterday evening there was no report of his being treated in hospital.

A total of 61 plastic bullets were fired by the security forces in addition to the live rounds fired by police, republicans and loyalists. Blast and petrol bombs, bricks, stones and bottles, as well as fireworks strapped with nails were also hurled during the trouble.

Yesterday innocent people on both sides of the divide were involved in clearing up the area, and in some cases clearing out of the area because of concerns of further violence. Housing Executive personnel were busy trying to find alternative accommodation for them while families, who had no intention of moving, were farming out their children to grandparents and others living in safer areas.