Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Theresa May refuses to accept any Brexit deal which treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK... but can you imagine these scenes being tolerated in Birmingham, Cardiff or Glasgow?

 

The British Government insists there can be no deal with the EU which separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. It's hardly an unreasonable position. The truth is, however, that Northern Ireland is already treated differently from its neighbours - and always has been.

Imagine that the scenes of disturbance which have been played out night after night in Derry since the weekend, with elderly Protestant residents living in fear as troublemakers, some as young as 12, hurl bottles, bricks and petrol bombs over the peace line, had been taking place anywhere else in Britain.

The breakdown of law and order would be the lead story on the national news, not least with trouble also sparking up in east Belfast on the Eleventh Night, as cars and buses were hijacked and burned by masked, armed men.

Politicians would be demanding action. Prime Minister Theresa May would have flown in to reassure residents of both cities that they had the full backing of the authorities in cracking down on the troublemakers.

Not so for residents of the tiny Fountain estate, who've been on the receiving end of a wave of sectarian thuggery organised by dissident republicans from the neighbouring Bogside since the weekend.

Not so for people in east Belfast, whose lives have been disrupted again as the UVF openly threatens violence against police officers simply for complying with court orders to tackle dangerous illegal bonfires.

All these victims have for comfort is limp statements from Secretary of State Karen Bradley, who, after PSNI officers came under gun attack on Tuesday night in Derry, could be found calling on "people of influence within the community" to "encourage dialogue and reduce tensions".

She might as well have issued a communique saying: "You're on your own, suckers." Beleaguered residents of Birmingham, Glasgow, or Cardiff wouldn't be effectively abandoned in this way.

Only because it's happening on this side of the Irish Sea is it accepted as inevitable. It's July, after all. Tensions always rise around the time of the Twelfth. Add in a heatwave and tempers are bound to fray among the restless natives. So, they shrug, issue ritualistic condemnations, then wait for things to calm down.

Earlier in the week, "several dozen" residents of the nationalist Bogside did gather in a welcome gesture of solidarity with Protestant neighbours under fire, but it would be foolish to deny that there are still far too many mealy-mouthed excuses made for violence.

In Belfast, unionist spokespersons have directly contrasted what they see as heavy-handed policing of loyalist bonfires with the supposedly lacklustre security response to the attacks on Protestants in the Fountain enclave.

Despite being given figures for the numbers of police being deployed, they've deliberately stoked resentment on the ground, leading inevitably to inflamed passions.

Meanwhile in Derry, Sinn Fein has been piously deploring attacks by dissident republicans, even though the current trouble is merely a continuation of a campaign of driving Protestants out of the city centre which was initiated in the 1970s by the Provisional IRA.

Blaming Sinn Fein directly for what's happening in the Maiden City would be ridiculous. The party's representatives have also been threatened in recent times by dissidents and it hardly helps the republican cause to have nationalist violence erupting during Twelfth week, when the media's eyes are generally trained on loyalist misbehaviour. But to say Sinn Fein is sending out mixed messages is putting it mildly.

On the one hand, the party condemns dissidents for firing shots at PSNI officers. On the other, former leader Gerry Adams proudly commemorates the 30th anniversary of the death of IRA volunteer Seamus Woods, who died of self-inflicted injuries after attempting to fire a mortar into Pomeroy barracks in an effort to murder RUC officers.

The standard argument - that it was right when a previous generation did it, but wrong now - makes no sense, so it's no wonder it fails to convince the young hotheads in Derry spewing hatred at the PSNI.

It's not as if ambivalence towards the police is in the past. Most ordinary people in Northern Ireland would surely support a strong security response to the violence in both cities.

Looking at the footage of the nightly attacks, there aren't that many individuals involved. But if the police did crack down hard on the thugs, who would be first to throw allegations about police "over-reaction"? The very same voices now shaking their heads and deploring the outbreak of violence.

Only the other day, former Policing Board vice-chair Denis Bradley criticised Sinn Fein for not encouraging Catholics to join the PSNI. Young people aren't stupid. They can read the insinuations coming from above that there's still something wrong with the police.

Contrast, too, the statement from Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney calling on the PSNI to "do the right thing" and "discharge its statutory duties" by removing some unquestionably disgusting sectarian posters from a bonfire in Stoneyford, south Antrim, with the statement the same day by Foyle MLA Karen Mullan tut-tutting over the violence in Derry and calling for those involved to "get off the backs of this community". Why no calls for the police to steam into the Bogside en masse?

Clearly, police are being urged to enter loyalist communities in strength and enforce the law, while facing angry censure when doing so in working-class republican communities.

The same whataboutery is at play in east Belfast right now, where so-called "community representatives" are stoking discontent at the police over bonfires, while clamouring for a tougher security response to violence in Derry.

Democratic oversight of PSNI operations is essential, but that's not what happens in Northern Ireland. Instead, cynical elements on both sides watch the police like proverbial hawks, not to ensure that policing is fair and proportionate, but rather in the hope that the force will, under sustained pressure, slip up.

Without the necessary political backing, the police are everybody's whipping boy, caught in the middle, forced to be reactive rather than proactive, reduced to pleading feebly for calm.

While officers risk their lives each night, it's actually depressing to hear Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd talking on The Nolan Show about joint statements issued by the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, as if these were normal civic organisations whose word counted for anything, rather than notorious crime syndicates.

Law and order should not be in these gangsters' gift to give and take away at will. Whether it's loyalists in east Belfast, or dissident republicans in Derry, it should be exacted from them under pain of the severest punishments, as it would in any other part of the country.

Pleading with them to play nicely just emboldens them further.

Belfast Telegraph

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