Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

The real price of keeping Belfast on the right path

More than 50 PSNI officers were hurt by flying masonry during loyalist violence in Belfast
More than 50 PSNI officers were hurt by flying masonry during loyalist violence in Belfast

The debris of Friday night's Belfast city centre riot is not just seen in the mess of bricks and bottles on the Royal Avenue/North Street junction.

It's not just about the almost two dozen plastic bullets fired.

And it's not just measured in injured officers – 56 in total, one of the highest in terms of any scene of disorder in the past decade.

The damage is also found in words. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tweeted: "Make no mistake about it; those responsible for tonight's violence against the police are the combined forces of the UVF & OO in N Belfast."

It brought a terse response from the PUP spokesman, loyalist Winston Irvine: "Would relish the opportunity to have a live studio debate with M McGuinness regarding his blatant lies about tonight's events. Billy liar."

Twitter is instant, concise and conveys the anger and the mood.

Read also the words of Chief Constable Matt Baggott in a PSNI statement on Saturday – within which there is a sentence illustrating the consequences of the violence: "There's plenty of evidence of what happened last night and I have no doubt whatsoever that significant custodial sentences will be handed down and prisons will be bulging."

So, it doesn't end in those few hours on Friday evening, but will continue to play out; the damage building from the bricks and bottles into words of recrimination.

Were members of the UVF involved in Friday's violence?

At this stage, the police are not pointing to organised and ordered participation, but one source described a "free vote" – that no effort was made by the organisation to hold its members back.

In other words they weren't ordered to riot, but nor were they instructed not to.

The damage is also in the financial cost of these huge operations.

Some 600 public order (riot squad) officers were needed for Friday's march and protest.

Add to that dog teams, water cannon and those on traffic management and public safety duties.

Do the numbers and count the cost. It is not just about bricks and bottles and plastic bullets.

Commenting on Friday's events, Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton described "completely leaderless, chaotic, disorganised protest activity that bore no resemblance to what had been notified to the Parades Commission".

He added: "Within that group there were people who turned up to engage in genuine protest. But my assessment is that a significant majority arrived with violent intent to obstruct the parade and were prepared to engage in extreme violence against officers."

Mr Hamilton said no application was made for mutual aid officers from other UK forces.

On Friday night the city centre junction was jam-packed with police and their vehicles; so tight a squeeze it's difficult to imagine where others could have slotted in.

Those street battle images were a reminder of the city's old days.

At the weekend, musician Joby Fox sent me a link to one of his songs, with the line: "Belfast, how I know you so well/you're like heaven, you're like hell."

The city of contradictions; the host of the friendly World Police and Fire Games – and the stage for a Friday night fight.

In his song, Belfast, Fox writes: "We have come a long way together/ Hold my hand so we both can be free from the trouble and the darkness."

The city has come a long way, but it still has a distance to go.

On Friday we saw those loyalists and republicans who still want to take it in the wrong direction.

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