Summoned by text to the Ardoyne riots
Some of the rioters were as young as eight. Others travelled all the way from Dublin, to take part in the organised chaos of Belfast’s Twelfth of July
THE CHIEF CONSTABLE of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggott, was talking to the press in the force’s headquarters, in Knock in east Belfast, the morning after the Twelfth of July disturbances. Behind him a screen showed footage of rioting in Ardoyne, in north Belfast, filmed from a police helicopter.
He told us that the cost of the overall violence would run into millions – money that could be used for schools and hospitals – that arrests would follow, that dissidents incited the trouble, that scores of his officers were injured and that a “big debate” was required to try to find a way out of the annual Twelfth of July violence.
As he spoke our focus was also shifting to the images on the screen; to the ferocity of the attacks on the police lines; to the rage of the rioters; to their callousness; to how young many of them were – some aged eight, nine and 10 – to how they were fired up in their attempt to kill or seriously injure officers.
The rioters, with dissident back-up, were using blast and petrol bombs, bricks, stones, metal bars, long spikes – any implement that would inflict serious harm – to attack the police lines. We’d all been there the previous night and had seen how the long-established rituals of rioting were played out.
Fr Gary Donegan, a local priest, noted how many of the adults at Ardoyne on the Twelfth were not from the area. That was obvious from the Dublin, southern and other non-Belfast accents that were heard. One Dubliner was brazen about it. “We are here to show solidarity with the residents,” he said. Local community leaders said it was solidarity Ardoyne could have done without.
The trouble continued during the week. On Tuesday night Fr Donegan stopped a youngster with stones in his hands to throw “at the Prods”. The priest took his stones; the boy was nine and had walked two and a half kilometres from Oldpark to join in the trouble. Fr Donegan was not alone in wondering about the lack of parental control.
Young rioters were drawn by texts and social-networking sites. Young teenage girls dressed up to watch their boyfriends hurl petrol bombs and stones: “Like models on a Milan catwalk,” said Fr Donegan.
Most locals abhorred the violence and resented the visitors. But for most of the week they appeared helpless. What happened at Ardoyne was a nihilistic act by disaffected youth on a “recreational” rampage, spurred on by dissident republicans who, apart from Brits Out, have no political agenda. It’s a lethal combination and is difficult to combat.
It happened this year, it happened last year and could happen again next year. Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and other politicians are working towards a “shared future” agenda, but from the debris of Ardoyne earlier this week, it was hard to see how they could devise a blueprint to end this annual carnival of destruction.
After fierce rioting at Ardoyne in 2005, the three following years were remarkably peaceful. That was because senior IRA figures, backed by Sinn Féin leaders such as Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly, were on hand to ensure there was peaceful nationalist protest. Last year, in the week of the Twelfth at least, the dissidents and what one community activist called the “feral gangs” gained the upper hand. It was the same this Twelfth. Sinn Féin leaders called for calm and restraint but didn’t have the muscle or influence of previous years to help maintain the order they desired. It was left to the police, who exercised courage and restraint, to try to keep a fragile control in the face of people who wanted to murder them. Is it possible to deal with wild youth – some of whom weren’t born at the time of the Belfast Agreement, in 1998 – spurred on by dissident republicans?
The Orange Order could act generously by forgoing its return parade past the Ardoyne shops on the Twelfth in the interests of community harmony. It would gain the moral high ground and puncture the dissidents’ balloon. But such Orange selflessness seems unlikely. Before Monday night one generally sensible senior Orange Order source shrugged and said the best Ardoyne could hope for was for the night and the week to conclude without full-scale sectarian conflagration. That was just about achieved.
What may be forgotten, and as Baggott also pointed out, is that, outside of Ardoyne and a small number of other areas, Northern Ireland was quiet over the Orange holiday.
Up to Wednesday night the consensus was that relative success – to use an old phrase of Reggie Maudling’s from the early 1970s – was to maintain an “acceptable level” of violence at Ardoyne and hope that the rioters would give up from exhaustion by this weekend, as is often the trend.
But then, on Thursday night local people said enough is enough. Backed by Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly and the SDLP’s Alban Maginness, and a few “hard” Provos re-asserting their authority, the people of Ardoyne rallied in their hundreds and in no uncertain terms told the trouble-makers to get off their backs.
It was an important, hopeful and perhaps even watershed moment in a very bleak week for Ardoyne. Decent people power could be the blueprint for the future.
To Ardoyne from the Republic
THE attempts of the PSNI and the Garda to identify those from the Republic who were at the Ardoyne riots will focus on the group Éirígí. (Gardaí believe some of the rioters may also be members of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, essentially made up of hard-line republicans opposed to the peace process and with links to the Real IRA.)
Eirígí was formed as a campaigns group in April 2006, to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. It became a political party in 2007, opposed to British presence in the North. It also supports “the creation of a new all-Ireland Democratic Socialist Republic”.
It is a relatively small group, with a membership concentrated in Dublin, as well as a smaller presence in other counties, including Antrim, Armagh, Cork, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Sligo, Tyrone and Wicklow.
It has a policy of becoming involved in high-profile protests, many of which result in clashes with gardaí. In Mayo, for example, its members went to protests by the Shell to Sea campaign. Éirígí members also clashed with gardaí outside the Dáil in May during the right-to-work protest.
The group confirms that some members were in Ardoyne over the past week.