FALLOUT and FAULT – Belfast’s familiar summer sounds

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A car on fire in North Street as loyalists counter protest against republicans taking part in the Anti Internment League march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre.

 

“Difficult night, but settling now.  At least no lives lost.”

The words were part of a text message sent to me late on Friday night; sent by a senior police officer who had watched the latest battle of Belfast – fought on that North Street and Royal Avenue junction.

I was there.

It was another night when parade marched towards protest, and another stage packed with police officers and all the paraphernalia that comes with these public order or riot situations.

On those battles lines bricks and bottles, chunks of metal and scaffolding were hurled at police.

The dogs barked, water cannon were used and plastic bullets fired.

These are the now familiar sights and sounds of a Belfast summer, and that message: “At least no lives lost,” summed up the danger of the situation – the thin lines on which this place so often walks.

The march was a republican anti-internment protest parade with part of the route through Belfast city centre.

Among the organisers were groups opposed to the Sinn Fein or mainstream republican peace strategy, and this walk at this time of heightened tension brought with it all the potential for trouble.

It never made it to that North Street and Royal Avenue junction, but it was not re-routed by police.

Despite the battle and despite the protest crowd, the police intention was still to allow it along its notified route and they were within minutes of letting it through when the marchers moved in another direction.

By then the crowd had been pushed up North Street and further down Royal Avenue.

 

A police officer lies unconscious injured as loyalists counter protest against republicans taking part in the Anti Internment League march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre

 

Fifty-six police officers had been hurt – on a night when they were battered along with the image of Belfast and the peace process itself.

It prompted the chairman of the Police Federation Terry Spence to call for a parading and protesting moratorium – a breathing space away from the different battles lines his colleagues have been holding for months now.

“I think it demonstrates that frustration he has on behalf of fellow officers,” Parades Commission Chairman Peter Osborne said – “a frustration shared by most in the community including the Commission.

“I think essentially he’s saying we need space and dialogue to try to resolve parading difficulties,” Osborne continued.

“I’m not saying I agree with the moratorium and we have to remember that there are not many sensitive parades left this summer.

“So we would certainly hope that from the start of September that space will be there and dialogue can take place without a moratorium,” he said.

September is Haass time – time for an all-party talking initiative chaired by the US diplomat Richard Haass on flags, parading and the past.

In reply to a comment on twitter on Tuesday I wrote: “There are those who won’t want it to work – it would spoil their summer. Sad really.”

Within minutes, the Orange Order Grand Chaplain Mervyn Gibson asked me who I thought didn’t want Haass to work.

You just have to look at the events of recent weeks and months for the answer.

 

Republican Anti Internment League march

 

A solution to marching doesn’t suit those labelled dissident republicans.

Parading, with all the policing needed, is their play ground – places and moments to launch attacks on officers and to re-write an old-days script.

There are also loyalists using this standoff for selfish purposes – using it to try to make themselves relevant again.

They are playing with fire.

So – if the cap fits wear it.

Haass will only work if there are compromises by all – giving by all – leadership by all.

This week was not just about Friday night, but all the controversy that came with the republican commemoration in Castlederg.

I’ve argued on this site that we need to explore quiet remembering without the parade – different ways for all to express themselves without having to march into controversy and through protest and hurt.

That is part of the challenge for this Haass initiative – for all to think outside their own boxes and their own shoes; to do and give something for peace and for those younger people who are being poisoned by the experiences of the conflict generation.

This is not a game.

Just think about the words in that Friday night text message: “At least no lives lost.”

Those words say all that needs to be said about the danger of doing nothing – the danger of the street fights.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

2 Comments

  1. Let’s not forget Brian that words need to be chosen carefully by all including Mr Baggott who insulted very many genuine community activists and community workers who put themselves in danger on Friday night in an attempt to ease tensions and move people away from the violence ,which was sadly inevitable it was a question which of the pressure points would “ignite” first. Baggott’s comments were ill timed, most certainly ill advised and most definitely ill mannered from someone who should, after this length of time, know better !! He has given many decent community activists food for thought about how they should respond when decent PSNI officers-NOT BAGGOTT ask them to intervene in times of tension within their own communities in the future.

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