For the school commander who stood on the grassy hill and gave his name only as Bob, the complexities and compromises of Northern Ireland politics, police, Brexit and protocol could come down to this: his side was losing , and that had to stop.
On his side were the Protestants, Loyalists and Loyalists, strongholds of the British on the island of Ireland, and they needed to assert themselves, starting at the roundabout at the end of O’Neill Road in Newtownabbey, outside Belfast.
A scorched and tattered Union Jack fluttered from a stick planted in the middle of the intersection, testimony to three cars hijacked and set on fire there in the week of Northern Ireland riots. Bob and his gang of teenagers, some clutching rocks and bottles, would defend him from any police who dared to take him away.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and other unionist parties did not defend Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, Bob said. “They are all bags of balls that don’t know how to put their foot on the ground. That is why we have been here. “
Simply put, that’s why gasoline bombs have been blowing up. Working-class loyalists feel neglected and marginalized and are using chaos to gain attention and leverage.
They attracted attention. The region’s power-sharing executive held an emergency session, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis rushed to Belfast, Boris Johnson issued a joint statement with his Irish counterpart, Micheál Martin, and the White House expressed your worry.
Whether he pushed the loyal agenda forward is another matter. Both governments and political parties condemned the violence, which injured 55 police officers, as reckless and unjustifiable. Arlene Foster, DUP leader and prime minister of the region, called it a disgrace.
But Bob and his ilk, dressed in dark fleeces, hoods, and masks, had their own political calculus.
A commercial border by the Irish Sea; nationalists who disobey the rules of the pandemic at the funeral of a former IRA commander; the police and prosecutors did not arrest or charge anyone who attended the funeral; in Northern Ireland’s zero-sum policy that meant the loyalists were losing.
“We are part of the UK, but they are trying to make Northern Ireland a united Ireland,” said Bob, as his lieutenants nodded. Few had traveled south of the border, only 60 miles away, because the Republic of Ireland was a strange and hostile territory. Bob, taller and bolder than the others, had made it to visit Dublin Zoo, and that was enough.
In his opinion, the other side, known colloquially as “them’uns”, was winning. Police patrols and drug raids on Newtownabbey housing estates, they said, showed partial police service indebted to rising nationalism.
It’s part of a loyal narrative that the rot started after the 1998 Good Friday deal. Instead of a deal, a new dawn, Sinn Féin and their allies used the deal to sting, sting, sting in Northern Ireland, remove the royal symbols, remove the Union Jack from Belfast city hall, and erect posters in Irish.
Now, in the centenary year of Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921, Catholics will soon outnumber Protestants, Sinn Féin is poised to overtake the DUP as the largest party and there is talk of a referendum on the Irish unit.
What this defeatist view overlooks is that in recent elections the nationalist vote has stalled, that nationalists have their own list of grievances, and that the fastest growing political force in Northern Ireland is the non-aligned center avoiding orange and green labels.
Bob was adamant: the loyalists had become second-class citizens. “There are policemen who treat Protestants like shit and Catholics like upper-class citizens. The police were born Protestant and should remain Protestant. “He showed his contempt as he stumbled up the hill to three officers, two of them male.” Hello ladies. “
Senior loyalists like John Scott, 61, a retired musician, weren’t manning barricades but felt the protests had a purpose. Johnson had betrayed trade unionists for Brexit, just as previous Downing Street occupants had betrayed the UK’s most British stronghold. “It can help get politicians off their behinds. Every once in a while the prime minister, whoever he is, needs a slap [mouth]. “
Frank honesty, perhaps, but there is some murkiness in the riots. Middle-aged men have hovered among the young missile launchers, raising suspicions that paramilitary elements are directing the violence. “They warn us when something will happen, they warn us so we can close on time,” said a shop owner in Newtownabbey, which has a strong Ulster Defense Association presence. When asked who “they” were, he smiled. “I can’t say more.”
Some feel the DUP’s hand in the unrest, saying the party demanded the resignation of the chief of police during Bobby Storey’s funeral to direct the anger of loyalists towards the police and away from the DUP’s role in creating the border of the Sea of ireland.
“What we are seeing here tonight is the result of the crisis of unionism,” said Matt Collins, a Belfast city councilor with the People Before Profit party. He spoke Wednesday night as smoke rose over the loyal Shankill Road, where rioters had set a hijacked bus on fire. “Having given nothing to their working-class communities, they have turned to sectarianism.”
A 63-year-old Catholic council worker who gave his name only as Patrick had a stronger criticism. “Unionists and loyalists were used to having their way, and now that they don’t get their way, they complain like a spoiled child.”
Peter Shirlow, director of the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and an authority on trade unionism, said many working-class loyalists viewed the commitments inherent in the Good Friday deal as concessions, surrender, an erosion of sovereignty by trickle down. “They are constantly being told that the other side is winning.” In fact, the majority of underprivileged areas in Northern Ireland were Catholic and loyal communities boasted of success stories, Shirlow said. “When people say that the loyalists have been abandoned, abandoned by whom? Like any other working-class community, they have their own problems. “
The worst flash point of the past week was in Belfast, at the interface of the Lanark Way peace wall, the Orwellian name for the barriers that separate neighborhoods.
The youth of the loyal Shankill Road and the youth of the nationalistic Springfield Road launched an aerial bombardment of stones, bottles and gasoline bombs. At one point, the gate caught fire and a breach was opened, with intruders swarming briefly into enemy territory, launching taunts and missiles.
In the cool morning light you could still read a faded and stained message painted on the wall, like a message conveyed from another era: “There was never a good war or a bad peace.”
Few in Northern Ireland would consider the riots, which cost 3,700 lives, a good war. The problem is those who are irritated by an imperfect peace and forget, or never knew, the alternative.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism