Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Holylands students unaware of dangerous game they play

By Malachi O'Doherty

When is a riot not a riot? The rowdyism in the Holylands by students and their friends is widely discussed in the media and social media as something different from the rioting that was part of the Troubles. And indeed it is.

It is not orchestrated and it is not focused on any political demand. The students just want to enjoy themselves.

Their sheer inability to grasp that they are a menace to their neighbours and that the police have a legitimate need to control them is simply just a mark of their immaturity and their ignorance.

It can probably be safely assumed that they do not really want to fight the police - that they would rather they stayed away and let them rampage merrily about the streets of south Belfast.

But does that mean that this whole ugly business has no place in the story of sectarianism and violence?

Some who clearly do not think so are the loyalists who phoned the Nolan Show yesterday morning.

Their gripe is that when loyalists party around their bonfires in July, they are damned in the media as both sectarian and stupid.

Let a loyalist make the case that a bit of drunken roistering in the street, with flags and chanting, is part of his culture, and there will be plenty of commentators quick to ask what kind of culture that is and what entitles it to respect.

From their perspective, hordes of young nationalists dressed in green, waving tricolours, shouting support for the IRA and chucking bottles at the police is at least on a par with rowdy loyalist celebration.

St Patrick's Day and the Eleventh Night have evolved together into ethnic chest-beating carnivals of a similar type. Yet they are not seen that way.

The violence in the Holylands was classed by some as "recreational rioting", treated as a kind of high jinks that just went a little too far. But are they missing the obvious?

Some of the students, who were interviewed in the streets yesterday, made the same comparison with the Eleventh Night themselves.

Like the loyalists, they argued that they get more criticism than the other.

That's familiar. They are learning the art of whataboutery.

These students don't look like battle-hardened rioters. They are naive and playful, but they are playing a dangerous game.

Bringing huge numbers onto the streets and getting drunk and confronting the police creates the circumstances in which violence can escalate and people can get badly hurt and worse.

And, as for them not being political; of course not. They haven't any serious thoughts about anything, by the looks of them.

But this is their way of saying that they are Irish and they are now part of a row with loyalists who believe that they are being spared the sort of derision that is piled on them.

Expect the loud behaviour of these silly students to rebound for months now through a hundred media discussions on parades, flags, bonfires and sectarian antics in public spaces.

And expect them not even to understand why.

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