Pity the poor, rampaging Protestants of Northern Ireland: For three nights this week, loyalist hoodlums rioted, carjacked, set fire to buses, and shot live rounds at Belfast police. For many in the North’s unionist working class, it seems this is the only way to get the government’s attention.
The chaos brought Belfast to a standstill with scenes recalling the worst of the 30-year Troubles, which are supposed to have ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It is a telling irony: Working-class loyalists directed their rage not against their traditional enemies, Catholics who favor unification with the Republic of Ireland, but against the symbols of the United Kingdom to which they are supposedly loyal.
By now, outsiders have learned to dismiss disturbances over Protestant parade routes—the issue that sparked Saturday’s rioting—as more of the same sectarian nonsense that has plagued the province for decades. Yet there was something different in both character and intensity about this year’s savagery. The riots came after an eventful eight months, from December to July, which saw the Irish Republican Army first vilified as a new mafia and then praised for deciding to put away the Semtex once and for all.
Mitchell Reiss, President Bush’s envoy to the peace process, put it well: The violence, Reiss said, resulted from an “abdication of responsibility by many unionist leaders,” who have failed to sell the peace process to the loyalist street. While the American press is consumed with domestic politics and bad news from Iraq, Reiss’ remarks made the front page of the main Dublin dailies—a reminder of the role that U.S. diplomacy still plays on this island of less than 6 million.
Despite the best efforts of the North’s unionist politicians to portray the riots as a spontaneous explosion of working-class angst, authorities say they were planned and orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist militia, with support from members of the Orange Order, the Protestant organization that organized the parade. In a political culture based on sectarian grievances and the threat of violence, loyalist resentment has smoldered, and the UVF acted on a growing conviction among disaffected Protestants that the long campaign to disarm the IRA has, paradoxically, led to Protestants being pushed to the sidelines.
Unionists increasingly see the peace process as one big sop to Catholic republicans. This is wrong: In fact, the Good Friday Agreement enshrined the principle that the North’s Protestant majority has an effective veto over moves toward reunification with the South. Yet rank-and-file unionists are encouraged in this belief by the likes of the bigoted preacher Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is now the strongest unionist party in the North. Secular working-class Protestants who prefer their bile in less overtly religious terms have few well-known politicians who speak for them.
But it is all too easy to place the blame entirely on the likes of Paisley and other unionist politicians, nearly all of whom issued mealy-mouthed statements that failed to condemn the violence in unqualified terms. The British and Irish governments’ gushing response to the IRA “peace declaration” in July also fed growing Protestant resentment.
Central to the Northern Irish peace process has been the British and Irish governments’ acceptance of the need to negotiate with political opponents who, following run-of-the-mill judicial standards, would be thrown in jail. Some argue that the decision to appease IRA terrorists and loyalist militias has created a breeding ground for never-ending violence such as that seen in Belfast in recent days. This would be a cynical view, since it was British dialogue with hard-line republicans that created the space for IRA leaders like Gerry Adams to convince his fellow soldiers to put down the Armalite rifle in favor of the ballot box. The fact that unionist leaders failed to persuade their followers to take a similar step is no reason to call into question the very basis of the peace process.
Still, in their eagerness to coax a meaningless peace declaration out of the IRA, Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, may have conceded too much ground. When the IRA declared an end to its armed campaign in July, Blair especially hailed it as an historic breakthrough and a triumph of peace. The British government started to scale down its security presence in Northern Ireland, a move to which unionists, predictably, reacted with fear and revulsion. (Meanwhile, there has been scant public confirmation of the IRA’s promised steps to decommission its weaponry.)
In fact, the IRA’s July statement was no breakthrough: It was, rather, the culmination of a brilliant public-relations campaign on the part of IRA leaders—most notably Adams, who, according to authoritative accounts, was a senior member of the IRA’s seven-member Army Council until just before the announcement, even while serving as president of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. Rather than playing along with this PR game, a wiser course would have been to welcome the IRA’s statement while holding to the line that, regardless of any extraordinary “internal discussion” that has gone on within the organization, republicans must put an end to criminality and violence in their midst if Sinn Fein is to be accepted as part of the political mainstream.
The world bought into the charade. Belfast’s Protestant working classes learned a different lesson, and their repugnant leaders have done little to dissuade them from it. Gunfire, wrote Fintan O’Toole* in Dublin’s Irish Times on Tuesday, is “the one form of eloquence that, in the strange world of the peace process, is sure to be heard.” The lesson is that violence, and the threat of more violence, is the surest way to remain politically relevant.
Correction, Sept. 16, 2005: The original version of this article misnamed Fintan O’Toole as “Fintal O’Toole.”