Slowly but surely, on a balmy Tuesday evening in north Belfast, the troublemakers and the rubberneckers started to roll up at the Circus — the Circus where no one was laughing.
Where the only show in town for the previous 48 hours had been the sad sectarian spectacle of rioters walking a tightrope between sanity and anarchy, oblivious to the plight of hundreds of police officers caught in the middle, working without a safety net.
For this was Carlisle Circus, where rival mobs of Protestants and Catholics have been involved in vicious violence which it’s been widely reported has been choreographed by paramilitary ringmasters, particularly on the loyalist side who caused most of the injuries inflicted on the 62 PSNI officers hurt in the line of duty.
In a normal world the TV and newspaper images of the horrors around the Circus would have kept most normal people away, but in the abjectly abnormal confines of this north Belfast maelstrom and with internet sites promising an encore to the two nights of madness, there was always the danger rioters would want to make it three in a row.
In loyalist Denmark Street, which has been the main battleground for this week’s clashes, it took several hours for the gathering to become a crowd. Across the Circus on the Antrim Road there was initially only a small group of nationalists looking at the loyalists looking at them, as the police tried to keep an eye on both sides at once.
In a quiet corner, a loyalist youth told me the UVF, who have denied orchestrating the trouble, had put the word out that there’s to be no repeat of Sunday and Monday’s violence.
But there was a different rumour on virtually everyone’s lips. The most popular speculation was that loyalists from all over the greater Belfast area were about to converge on the Circus to protest about the Parades Commission and/or about a nine-month jail term handed down to a teenager for rioting.
That story was all over the internet earlier in the day, but it was confirmed the youth had been remanded in custody.
The PSNI wasn’t sure what to believe. Its intelligence clearly didn’t rule out another night of mayhem.
Outside Clifton Street Orange hall, at the Circus, and in every side street more than 30 PSNI Land Rovers were parked up, with even more officers than before, ready for anything.
Yet in bizarre Belfast, less than 10 minutes down the street, in the heart of the city’s entertainment hub, the Cathedral Quarter, it was still business as usual in a world away from the Circus disturbances.
Scores of people were relaxing in pubs and restaurants with scarcely a thought about what was going on just beyond a stone’s throw away from them.
“They’re not likely to come down here,” said Sarah Johnston, an office worker sipping a glass of chardonnay. “I reckon we’re as safe as houses.”
Anne-Marie Breen, a training manager from Belfast, said: “It does sadden me what has been happening, but I’m looking forward while the people up the street are rooted in the past.”
A pub worker said the sounds from the two nights of what police rather starchily called “significant but localised disorder” were heard only too clearly in the Cathedral Quarter which — to paraphrase tourist chiefs — was like another time, another place from Carlisle Circus.
Last night outside the bookies at the bottom of the Crumlin Road, the talk was all about whether or not anyone was willing to predict a riot. But inside no-one was betting against it.
And the small band of journalists and photographers and camera crews were initially restricted to snatching the odd shot of the odd bottle and the odd firework hurled from a group of loyalists pushed down Denmark Street by police Land Rovers. Nothing hit its target.
The blame game was harder to avoid. Whoever was at fault — and it’s difficult to absolve any side from responsibility — the reality, according to one churchman who didn’t want to be named in case he upset his people, was that while it’s easy to start a riot, it’s nearly impossible to end one.
He said: “We need to find people who are big enough to put themselves in harm’s way to stop all this nonsense.
“And you can try to analyse it all you want, the basic ingredient is hate,” he added. “And, of course, there’s also plenty of what the late David Dunseith used to call the whataboutery.”
Certainly talking to people yesterday on both sides, it was like an echo of outrage. The insults and the accusations were exactly the same. Only the names had been changed with loyalists and nationalists equally offended by marches, restrictions on marches, and the lack of restrictions on marches.
And so the Circus roundabout went on last night, with the only constant that the police were still the fall guys, the losers in what was quite simply a no-win situation for the PSNI, who know plastic bullets and water cannon won’t solve the conflict.
The warning from Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr that someone will be killed unless there’s dialogue to find a way out of the marching maze didn't appear to have made the slightest difference to the people at the Circus hell-bent on more carnage.
Certainly not to the group of teenagers strolling through Carrick Hill arguing about whether or not they had time for a chip before what trouble there was kicked off. “We’re early,” said one of them. “It’s only half eight. It didn’t start last night till after nine. It’ll be the same tonight.”