A dreadful inevitability


Five nights of rioting in Belfast. A drearily predictable Twelfth takes up where loyalism’s town hall flag wavers left off barely six months ago. We’re still here, they say, their bands beating out martial marching airs, their collarette-wearing, alcohol-fuelled supporters spewing sectarian bile as they launch another brick or wield a ceremonial sword at the embattled PSNI.

A total of 71 police officers injured by last night, 60 rioters, arrested. The carefully fostered illusion at G8 only weeks ago that the North is now “peaceful” and “normal” is demolished. We are back to where it all began ?

But weary Northerners will tell you it isn’t so. It is important to keep the flare-up in perspective. Despite the return to street fighting. The desperate flailing of a stranded, dying fish, Orangeism’s almost farcical last stand of principle to defend its purported “right” to march down a few hundred metres of a particular Queen’s highway, is a far cry from days when it looked like a whole society was poised on the edge of war.

In truth, there were 500 parades last Friday. Sine 499 of them peaceful, although there was also some trouble in east Belfast and the city centre. Many parades had been rerouted by the reviled Parades Commission, many, like those in in Derry for the last 10 years, took routes agreed with the nationalist communities they would pass through.

But in north Belfast there was always going to be a riot at the nationalist interface in the Ardoyne. Unionist and Orange leaders while belatedly decrying the violence have repeatedly blamed it on what they saw as the “sectarian” Parades Commission capitulation to dissident republican protesters who last year rioted to block the Ardoyne march. First Minister Peter Robinson spoke of Orangemen’s “justifiable anger”, with every condemnation of violence matched by an attack on the commission. Once again it is the tail of unionism, the small sectarian flag waving rump, which is wagging the dog.

The Orange Order – specifically the more militant Grand Lodge of Belfast – called on its supporters to march, and it marched them up to the top of the hill ... and when they didn’t come down, it was surprised. No-one else was. PSNI chief constable Matt Baggott had drafted in 1,000 extra police from Britain because the countdown to violence was so inevitable and obvious.

“With the will to solve the problems Northern Ireland can do anything,” Richard Haass, returning US special envoy to the North, has said. But is there yet a will in the further reaches of unionism? And even, some would say, in mainstream unionism? Robinson has to do more to convince. Haass arrives back in the North today to chair all-party working group set up to agree an alternative to the Parades Commission. He has his work cut out.