How can we police Britain’s double standards on rioting?
We all know that, to many ordinary people in mainland Britain, Northern Ireland is a place apart.
If they think of us at all, they see a small, incomprehensible zone of fiercely contested territory, stuck in a sectarian time-warp, populated largely by flag-waving weirdos, illiterate thugs and sinister reformed gunmen.
We may be part of the UK, but to them we are more like a band of unruly, ignorant foreigners and they'd be more than happy to see the back of us, with our squabbles, rows and stand-offs — if they could.
Every time that trouble kicks off here, the same message in radio phone-ins and internet forums comes across loud and clear from the mainland: if Northern Ireland crumbled and slid into the Irish Sea, there would be few tears shed for us.
“We in the UK are tired of this ridiculous 400-year-old charade. Let them fight it out themselves,” said one blogger after the July 12 riots. “Nothing will ever change, same old hatreds, same old quarrels. If that's the way they want to live, then corral them within the peace walls,” said another.
There's no surprise, either, when violence and disorder occurs on the streets of Belfast.
It's what we're known for, after all. British papers might run a small picture of a blazing car, or a youth hurling a petrol-bomb into the night sky, and there might be a brief report tucked away inside, but that's about it.
It's not news, it's |normality — and it merits little more than a glance. Of course, it's all very different when trouble arrives on British doorsteps, as it has done this week in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.
The photographs of hooded youths flinging missiles, flaming buildings and police clashing with rioters are large, full-colour shots. Headlines scream about mob rule, yob rule and anarchy in the UK.
There are maps detailing every instance of trouble: the looted shops, the running scuffles, the buses set on fire. Why oh why, lament the commentators, looking for answers in everything from resentment against the police to a lack of consumerist fulfilment — or maybe just an opportunistic desire to nick a high-spec TV and a pair of trainers.
There are loud demands for the Army to be sent in, countered by softer calls to understand the legitimate concerns of downtrodden communities, and so on and so on.
Back home in Northern Ireland, we watch the familiar scenes of disorder unfold in different streets, different cities. Riots in Belfast? That’s business as usual, sure they're all bonkers there anyway.
Riots in London? Hold the front page, this is a national emergency.
This is not to underestimate the scale and the seriousness of the disorder in London and elsewhere and the very reasonable attempts to fathom the nature of the trouble and the best way to contain it. But it feels very much like one rule for Northern Ireland, another for Britain.
British politicians are generally far too canny and politically astute to make that distinction explicit: they may think us absurd, self-important and far more trouble than we're worth, but they're not going to come out and say it.
But Home Secretary Theresa May, perhaps flustered by the sudden upsurge in street disorder, recently let that facade slip.
Facing calls for stronger measures against the looters and rioters, she said: “The way we police in Britain is not with water-cannon. The way we police in Britain is on the streets and with the communities.”
So it's acceptable for the PSNI to use water-cannon and plastic baton-rounds in Northern Ireland, but when it comes to Britain, a civilised, consensual approach — the equivalent of a nice chat with your friendly neighbourhood officer — is the order of the day?
The question of whether or not it's a good idea to blast British rioters with water-cannon or fire plastic baton-rounds at them is not the issue here.
Rather, it's the implied assumption, coming from a position of lofty entitlement, that there's one (harsh) remedy for the unreconstructed savages in Belfast and a very different, more thoughtful and nuanced one for rioters in London.
That might not be what Theresa May meant to say, but the fact that it slipped out like that shows a certain way of thinking about Northern Ireland that is endemic in Britain.
Some if it is down to lack of interest and ignorance. I remember a London-based international news editor once asking me if the RUC was a republican organisation. I was amused, but I shouldn't have been surprised.
Northern Ireland may be the most self-obsessed country in the world, but no one else cares.