Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Like Lord Of The Flies, New Lodge rioters teeter on cusp of anarchy ... and politicians can't shirk blame

Collapse of Assembly at Stormont merely adds to the general feeling of hopelessness in society, says Alban Maginness

Police during the disorder over the New Lodge bonfire
Police during the disorder over the New Lodge bonfire
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

William Golding, in his celebrated allegorical novel Lord Of The Flies, writes about a group of schoolboys on an aeroplane that is shot down and crashes on to a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean.

The schoolboys survive but remain stranded by themselves, without adult supervision, on the uninhabited island.

Soon afterwards this group of schoolboys descend into appalling savagery and anarchy, resulting in death, including the murder of two of their number, before they are rescued.

The novel highlights the slender line between the human impulse towards savagery and the rules of civilised living, which are designed to restrain and minimise it.

Golding says that human beings must have rules, authority and government in order to maintain a safe environment. Left to their own devices, like the schoolboys on the island, the path to chaos and anarchy will undoubtedly ensue.

Recent events in Belfast and Derry are a warning that we, too, could easily end up in a dystopian descent into anarchy and chaos unless we reaffirm the importance of order and peaceful behaviour.

The violent scenes before the internment bonfire at the New Lodge flats were frightening and disturbing, reminding all of us that the margin between civilised and violent behaviour is very thin.

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It's also a reminder that those who suffer most are the local residents, who are prisoners to unacceptable anti-social behaviour.

What is required is clear political leadership that calls out such unacceptable anti-social behaviour for the wrong that it does to society and even to the mindless perpetrators themselves.

In this respect it was fortunate that councillor Paul McCusker courageously spoke out about what was happening in the New Lodge neighbourhood days before the appalling events surrounding August 9.

He was subsequently followed by other local representatives expressing concern about the potential damage to the local community, but it was Paul McCusker who nailed it and forthrightly articulated what local people really thought - and that was that they were opposed to an internment bonfire.

Furthermore, he bluntly outlined that the people had been subject to increasing anti-social activity in their neighbourhood over many months. There had been - and continued to be - an unsettled and tense atmosphere.

He highlighted the sinister and alarming graffiti that had been put on the wall of a family centre, threatening to burn it down if the bonfire was removed.

Given such warnings - and the failure of the PSNI to successfully deal with the Twelfth bonfire at Avoniel a month before - it is hard to understand the failure of the police to devise a foolproof plan to deal effectively and successfully with this situation.

Their cumbersome and clumsy operation was disappointing and was an unfortunate victory for a group of directionless and alienated young people, who are not subject to any political or social parameters.

The police withdrawal (albeit to preserve public safety) has undermined general public confidence in the ability of lawful authority to exercise public control over threatening situations and protect the interests and wishes of local residents, who were overwhelmingly against the building and lighting of a bonfire in their immediate vicinity. Earlier intervention by the police in removing the bonfire construction may have nipped this situation in the bud given the high level of community support in the New Lodge for the bonfire's removal.

The police will now need to urgently review their operational tactics for dealing with this type of situation, as they are likely now to increase in both number and size.

But what will happen to those young people who participated in the disgraceful behaviour that we witnessed? Doubtless, many will be prosecuted and convicted of public order offences, given the fact that they brazenly attacked the police in the full glare of television cameras.

This may mean some of them being fined or receiving custodial sentences, and the stigma of a criminal conviction that will militate against them obtaining employment or improving their lot in life.

For these alienated and out-of-control young people, this will further increase their alienation from society and doubtless lead them to live even more meaningless lives on the margins of society. This makes a difficult problem probably intractable.

None of this is helped by the fact that, as a society, we are politically rudderless. The unforgivable failure of politicians to restore the Assembly and the power-sharing Executive adds to the increasing sense of malaise and hopelessness in our society.

The failure of politicians to develop a coherent political model that produces hope, respect and good politics cannot inspire young people.

Political progress in itself will not solve the alienation of young people living a hopeless, Clockwork Orange existence, but it could help a good deal.

Belfast Telegraph

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