Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

No excuses left for the violence that threatens our fragile peace

Viewed from abroad the news from Northern Ireland was dismal and depressing in the past week.

It seemed as if events at home conspired to reflect the weather while those who were fortunate enough to have holiday sunshine elsewhere, as I was in France, could adopt a more positive outlook on life.

The marvels of satellite technology are such that there is no escape from Stephen Nolan, BBC Newsline or UTV Live wherever you happen to be in Europe.

Me being an Ulsterman to my backbone, I still find myself riveted to such local programmes even on Bastille Day when my friends in southern France were celebrating. What is the outside world to make of Northern Ireland in July? Frankly, and very regrettably, not a lot.

No matter how hard the Orange Order tries to improve its image, the national news headlines still associated the Twelfth with violence.

The Orange Order may say with considerable justification that it was not to blame. I watched the BBC’s live coverage of the Twelfth and the highlights from around the province later, and certainly a festive atmosphere shone through.

BBC and UTV tried hard to separate the celebrations from the mayhem which was orchestrated afterwards in north Belfast. But what is the outside world to make of us?

I cringed as I watched from a distance the scenes in Belfast and tried to explain to my foreign friends that we are not like that any more.

They nodded sympathetically, but deep down I wondered if they really believed what I was saying. So what am I to tell them? That they have witnessed a rare phenomenon which we have identified as ‘recreational rioting’?

Am I to say that Ardoyne is no different from the occasional outbreak of street disorder at the Notting Hill Festival, or in the impoverished suburbs of Paris?

I wish that the explanation would be convincing enough to make my continental friends rush off and book a holiday online to Belfast, but I have grave doubts. Tragically, a couple of hundred young yobos hurling abuse, breeze-blocks and broken bricks at the PSNI are enough to dismantle Northern Ireland’s improving international image.

One thing we must not do is reward them. This isn’t about social deprivation whatever that word means set against the really deprived people who we have just witnessed on the fringes of the World Cup in South Africa.

No excuse can be made for the Ardoyne rioting other than there are people who want to destroy any stability in Northern Ireland or, more likely, that an element of youthful society has completely lost the run of itself.

Peter Sheridan, the ex-Assistant Chief Constable, who now heads up Cooperation Ireland, suggests that we must fill what he sees as a void in the lives of those who attacked the PSNI. He argues the rioters must be distracted away from street violence and that even more resources should be ploughed into north Belfast.

I would disagree with him respectfully, not least because the residents of Ardoyne appear to question how many of those involved in the disturbances actually came from the area and ‘sinister elements’ are also inferred.

We need to know much more about who was behind the rioting before making a judgment on whether Ardoyne is in need of more support.

On the face of it, the north Belfast disturbances smacked of an appalling lack of parental control, of a society that needs to take a grip on itself, that is out of touch with reality. If I was to offer any excuse for the community tensions which eventually spilled into violence, it would be that the north Belfast Orangemen who insist on marching past this difficult interface need to really examine their consciences and ask themselves this question: is cowering behind a wall of armour-plated PSNI officers and shielding themselves from taunts and trouble really a nice way to spend what is supposed to be a celebratory summer’s day?

Are they not offering an Orange-given opportunity to a bunch of young thugs to undo all the other progress the Orange Order is making to establish the Twelfth as an enjoyable attraction? That said, we as a community have to stop making excuses for violence.

There can be no excuses left for anti-social behaviour unless you want to destroy the fragility of a relatively peaceful state, which has defied all the odds to come together. Only dissident republicans, nutcases and the like have another agenda.

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