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Belfast ~ Divisions in free fall

From peace walls to interface areas, flags to upmarket cafes, friends to foe - is this the bipolar empire? A discussion across a coffee table in Belfast February 2013.

Arriving late in an eerily deserted Belfast is an intimidating albeit typical experience. This is the residual effect sectarian and politically motivated violence has left on the citys visual makeup following decades of curfews which held people in their homes. Youve seen it on your newsstands - 30 years of the troubles, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and more recently an optimistic vibrant party city reaching out to the world. But the frustration and unrest are still not far away. The young mans fiery and biting words keep my attention on the TV screen in my hotel room. He is one of many disaffected and increasingly polarised youth from loyalist East Belfast. He lambasts the chat show host and guest politician. The TV show is discussing Belfast city councils decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies over City hall. This young man, among others, is not happy. But who can really make sense of it all? 22 years old and surrounded by a social mess, growing up conditioned into such a negative setting. It is bound to distort your outlook on life. Since the final months of 2012 certain loyalist factions, mostly from East Belfast, flow into the city centre for daily protests at City hall. The situation has generated violent flash points all over the city, with everything from rioting to car-jacking taking place. It is now mid-February and the protests continue. I stand among shoppers on Donegall Square where I watch streams of people from all walks of life, draped in Union flags; converge on the intersection in front of City Hall. Some lone men, looking like plain clothes detectives, take in everything. Loyalist ringleaders with their strong Belfast accents lead chants and raise the demonstrators emotions. Policing the protests and unrest have pushed Belfasts police force (the PSNI) to breaking point. They stand, well armed yet slightly on edge, next to their token white armoured vans. A training day in the city gives me a perfect opportunity to connect with some local mainstream perspectives and opinions away from the radicalized viewpoints marching the streets. I sit with Margaret and John at a table in a comfortable cafe just west of the city centre. Margaret is in her late 50s. She shifts from side to side at the table adjusting the cutlery, trying to cover up her nervous state. She speaks to us in a robust manner, trying to show strength to the two younger men she finds sharing her table. John is in his mid-twenties from Derry city; a gentleman, sober in character and upbeat in nature. Both come from very different backgrounds yet their opinions on Belfast and its current situation run alongside each other. Margaret: Ah I love Belfast. Im not from here but I have lived here 35 years. Yes in the city was always good to me, for going out...restaurants...dancehalls...friendliest people you will meet anywhere. 35 years, I came here as a student nurse and never left it. The people of Belfast are some of the friendliest you will meet anywhere. For a city with a history of street to street gun battles, bombings and vicious punishment beatings; the outsider could be forgiven for making presumptions about the local inhabitants. But who are these factions exploiting flags and emblems to inflame the embers of discontent? Who are these guys?

Margaret: I know East Belfast young man and I can tell you its just a small group of hardliners. John: Extremists...thats all they are. They dont represent the ordinary guy in the street going about his business trying to feed hes family Margaret: They are in it for the money and the positions...feeding their egos and their pockets. Do you think if there was no money involved they would be out there rallying up a frenzy?!

And what about West Belfast these days? The peace walls are huge three-story high barrier constructs, barbed wire running along the top in some places. They run down through the city, criss-crossing suburban areas and dividing Loyalist (loyal to the Queen and the United Kingdom) and Republican (wanting a 32 county Ireland with no United Kingdom interference) communities. The walls were originally constructed in the 1960s to prevent violent clashes in interface areas, but over time have served in blocking out rational ideas of coexistence. They have been integral in constructing psychological barriers; increasing paranoia and mistrust...leading to an increase in attacks and violence. The peace walls have ghettoized many parts of Belfast. Residents themselves in certain parts wanted the walls to go up and some today do not want the walls to come down. But since the Good Friday Agreement, praised and copied the world over as a success story in conflict resolution, more walls have been erected than were present during the years of the troubles. The peace walls act as a visible reminder to all communities of the divisions in free fall between them. John: Its no way to live, caged into different sectors with these high rise walls that go on forever? Derry has the same kind of thing. Separated paranoid communities; not too healthy is it?


2013 has seen cracks appear in what most saw as a vibrant and somewhat unified Belfast. But Flag protests and the summer 2013 sectarian rioting both reveal communities on the brink. In conversation with republican residents off the turbulent Ardoyne, 12th July 2013.

An elderly local man walks slowly down the Ardoyne Road spying the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) officers and their vans with suspicion. He stops and glances across the road at the growing number of Loyalist spectators. This is the Ardoyne roundabout on the Orange Orders July twelfth celebrations. It is a day that has seen violence and rioting year on year between loyalist and Republican neighbourhoods in this part of North Belfast. Today everyone is waiting for something to happen. The elderly man walks up to us while we watch the police presence grow. He eyes some PSNI officers chatting with local kids on the footpath just up from us. See them there? Believe me, theres nothing more that officer would like than to nail that kid to the fucking wall. The old mans hard stare and strong statement makes it evident that he is a remnant of the old guard in this republican neighbourhood. They are a disgrace, he says of the PSNI, Were just left to fend for ourselves while they protect the Loyalists across the road. They couldnt give a damn about us here. Years ago youd get pulled up walking along the street, searched and could end up in Maghaberry Prison just like that! Certain quarters of Belfasts Republican communities still hold a deep distrust for the Police; this is evident on seeing the anti PSNI-MI5 collusion posters which dot lampposts across many Republican areas. Our government just turned their backs on us up here, Dublin couldnt give a damn says the elderly man. He resumes hes trek on down the road.

Another local of the nearby Republican Brompton Park has seen it all. He, along with other residents of Brompton and the Ardoyne road, stare across the Ardoyne Roundabout at what they see as their antagonistic Protestant neighbours in Twaddell Avenue and Woodvale road. At 68 years old he states that life is some bit better these days. Ah yea since the peace process weve seen some improvements for our community, but not a lot. Theres a heavy bitterness around. I ask him if hes lived locally all his life, Sure Im just down the road there, Ive lived here since the old days when things were really bad. I cant count the number of times the RUC (pre-PSNI) would burst in the door in the middle of the night and ransack the place. Yes in the middle of the night! Kids out of bed, youd get pushed against the wall and told to stay put. They were rough enough. They called it the troubles, but for us it was really a war. I ask how relations are with the police and has it improved with more Catholics working in the force these days? Well its more so 20-80 makeup now Id reckon since the peace process, but its getting better. It will take a long time. What the hell are they doing here at this hour anyway?!? He surveys the Ardoyne Roundabout in front of us. Its 3.30pm and PSNI vans are arriving in numbers taking positions down Twaddell Avenue, Woodvale Road and the Crumlin Road, with a few others up the Ardoyne road. This is far too early, something is up. Theyll be trouble tonight. Trouble did come later that evening when Loyalists and Orange lodge supporters intent on marching up past the Ardoyne Roundabout were blocked by the PSNI. The altercation resulted in intense and violent rioting causing casualties across both police and civilian lines. The violence on the Twelfth has since perpetuated sectarian rioting every night across interface areas of Belfast. Predominantly made up of disenfranchised youths, the rioting has gained the disapproval of the wider Protestant community. The events have shaken community relations and sparked the unravelling of reconciliation efforts between various factions in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Some have expected the rioting to pacify gradually, but the situation looks to progress onto an even more dangerous and unsure path. The Orange Order has applied to parade down this disputed route again on Saturday 20th of July and consecutive weekends following this. If they get approval, it may stir the republican neighbourhoods of North Belfast into a violent reaction. If the Orange parade is denied it could send the Loyalist neighbourhoods on a more consistent path to lawless protest. Regardless, the balance of peace is being rocked. Lets just hope the local communities don't have to suffer amid parade politics and standoffs.