Ross Kemp reflects on his Twelfth: Shocked by Belfast's giant walls and violence in 'Extreme World'
Former EastEnders hardman turned broadcaster Ross Kemp has revealed his shock at the intensity of the violence during last summer's rioting in Belfast.
The star was back in the city yesterday for a preview of his new Extreme World documentary, which focuses on the most dangerous places on Earth.
Kemp said he was shocked to discover that there were more peace walls in the city now than 15 years ago.
He said the sheer scale of the main peace wall between the Shankill and Falls Roads surprised him most, as well as the level of violence during a riot.
"The size of that wall, for me, was a bit of a surprise. It is a suburban street. One minute Woodvale (in west Belfast) was like Ealing and the next it was not, and that happened very quickly," he said.
The actor was hit by a tin of beer during the trouble in north Belfast last July.
"I should have caught it. I could have done with a drink," he joked.
However, he said that was nothing compared to the injuries received by PSNI officers.
The programme also shows Kemp watching aghast as police s discover explosives at a house at Marlborough Street in Londonderry.
He said that if this happened anywhere else in the UK, it would be headline news.
"There are still issues here, I don't think it gets enough news play across the rest of the UK," he said.
Driving into Derry, Kemp commented that "you could be fooled into thinking you were somewhere in the south of France".
But moments later he was examining damage to the walls of Strand Road PSNI station left by dissident republican attacks.
Kemp also spent time with the Shankill Protestant Boys flute band. As he experienced his first Eleventh Night bonfires, Kemp described the atmosphere as "festival-like".
But he added that there was palpable anger over a Parades Commission decision to bar the Orange Order from its favoured route past Ardoyne for the first time.
Watching the burning of Irish tricolours on the bonfires, Kemp said it felt to him like "an act of defiance by a community afraid of becoming part of a united Ireland".
As the Twelfth approached, young Protestants told Kemp they felt like underdogs, while Anne Robinson, a nationalist resident in Ardoyne, said she felt like a second-class citizen.
Kemp was up at 6.45am on the morning of the Twelfth along with the PSNI commanding officer at Ardoyne, Detective Inspector Graeme Dodds.
"I never really grasped the intensity of it. The surreal thing is that this is a suburban street," Kemp said.
But the real violence started when the return parade was blocked on the Woodvale Road as Orangemen, bandsmen and supporters arrived at police lines manned by officers in boiler suits with batons and holding shields.
As missiles began to fly Kemp sheltered behind police vehicles as petrol bombs hurled by a crowd of angry Union flag-draped loyalists exploded inches away and sent flames into the night air.
Mr Dodds was interviewed again at 11.05pm looking exhausted after seven of his officers had been struck down and injured by missiles thrown by loyalists.
When asked how long police will stay for, Mr Dodds told the documentary his officers would be there as long as they needed to be. The stand-off lasted for four days and cost around £28m.
Kemp said he was familiar with Northern Ireland from visiting socially for many years and had a personal fondness for it. He said he felt it had changed dramatically thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, but that "minorities should not be allowed to derail it".
Flashes of insight in the midst of dullness
For all the material and access Ross Kemp enjoyed, his show about a hot and heavy summer in Northern Ireland was less Extreme World and more Anodyne Ardoyne.
Kemp was given hours of behind-the-scenes access with one of the bands at the centre of the north Belfast marching dispute and more time with the PSNI than any local journalist – yet the resulting documentary was overall, dare I say it, slightly dull.
Having been at Ardoyne last July 12, the reality was much more dramatic.
Tensions on the Crumlin Road soared alongside the temperature on that baking hot day as loyalists and republicans were kept apart by police.
But there was also a surreal moment of humour and cultural unity when women of a certain age called out Ross Kemp's name as the bands started to move off.
Kemp confessed that in Derry, too, he had people stopping him as he went about filming, asking for their picture to be taken with him.
There were, however, some flashes of genuine insight.
A sunburnt topless youth at Woodvale is seen snatching a police baton off an officer to batter him with it, and an unconscious riot squad member can be seen being dragged off the front line.
A conversation between a loyalist taxi driver – as a youth hurled stones at his neighbours – and a republican taxi driver at Bombay Street was also fascinating.
But these were only split-second moments.
Too much of the film was spent quickly trying to explain the basics, including the alphabet soup of dissident republican terror groups.
Kemp explained one of his principal motivations for filming here was to explain to the rest of the UK what the TV images of rioting they saw every summer were really about.
Kemp confessed he could have made five programmes with the material he had.
Admittedly, a one-hour programme with advertisements trying to explain a situation which has taken 30 years of peace processes to tackle is a tall order, but on this occasion viewers will most likely be left underwhelmed.