Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Something rotten in the heart of rioting loyalism

Liam Clarke

There is something amiss in Protestant working-class areas; a feeling of alienation and exclusion which calls for deep political work and long effort.

There is no denying the baleful role of the UVF in stirring up problems in east Belfast last week. The point is, though, that such a group couldn't mobilise people in a healthier society.

The east Belfast UVF's ability to ratchet up the tension isn't evidence that they speak for the people; election results show us that they don't. It is a sign of sickness.

What happened in east Belfast was akin to a heart attack. Once it occurred, there was no alternative to calling in the crash teams in terms of police and fire crews, mediators on the ground and Stormont politicians doing whatever it took to get things back onto an even keel.

No one can deny that was necessary. Yet a heart-attack isn't caused by lack of crash teams.

The origins often lie in years of bad lifestyle choices, lying about, over-eating on the wrong kind of food, ignoring health advice, smoking or drinking. Tell me about it.

After an attack, a patient, in search of temporary relief, may instinctively reach for the booze, fags or cream buns that helped cause the problem. Regular exercise and healthy eating may be the last things that come to mind.

It is the same in east Belfast, where a proportion of the population will look to organisations like the UVF or the republican dissidents for an immediate feeling of relief - even though they know they shouldn't.

Violence and unrest may seem like a sugar-fix and self-harming can seem attractive because it gets everyone's attention.

The fact that, on balance, Short Strand stayed calmer attests to the years of careful work by Sinn Fein and others. Community structures are in better shape to withstand pressure than in some loyalist areas.

People feel closer to their politicians and, if they are discontented and in poverty as many are, they feel they have a way to address their problems.

In contrast, the DUP's increasing engagement with the middle classes as it rebrands as a centre-right party risks leaving some loyalist areas feeling stranded.

The people who feel excluded are not to be written-off as extremists. Many of them switched to Alliance as a protest against the DUP in the General Election and they didn't support paramilitary-linked candidates in the May poll.

Many stayed at home and they weren't mobilised by calls to defeat Sinn Fein.

In May, the DUP put in Sammy Douglas, an able and articulate MLA with lots of street cred, to plug their perceived gap in inner-city east Belfast.

He polled well, but he hasn't had nearly enough time to change the situation around since the election.

The UVF, which has its own internal problems, may continue to provide incendiary sparks.

The job of politicians is to ensure that there are no piles of tinder, or other flammable materials, lying around waiting to be ignited.

In the heart-attack analogy, they need to put effort into a prevention strategy and healthy community structures.

That will be a long slog.

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