The grievances of Northern Ireland are flaring up again. This time Protestant fears are at the heart of itby David McKittrick / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Loyalist protesters attack police lines on the Albertbridge Road in Belfast during an Orange Order parade on 12th July © Andrew Chittock/Demotix/Corbis
Much of the world assumes that Northern Ireland is a triumphant example of a conflict successfully resolved. Tony Blair, and British diplomats more generally, have certainly been happy to accept the plaudits for bringing an apparent end to decades of violence which had left more than 3,700 dead and marred Britain’s standing as a modern liberal democracy. It was a shock then, in July this year, when a Protestant loyalist who had climbed onto a police van during a tumultuous street protest, was seen being blasted off his feet by water cannon, flying spread-eagled through the air above the heads of the crowd. The image was broadcast around the world.
Over the past year, Belfast has witnessed many scenes like this—petrol bombs, attacks on police which have left hundreds of officers injured, dozens of men and youths arrested and imprisoned. Everyone thought it was all over—isn’t it? The answer is no, not entirely. True, this is not a return to the Troubles of the 1970s; the weapons have been bricks, not car bombs and bullets. We are a long way from the heyday of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which dreamed of forcing Britain out of the north by a campaign of violence in its quest for a united Ireland. The few remaining republican men of violence who favour such tactics have little public support now, and less impact. But the province is increasingly troubled, and now it is Protestant “loyalists” or “unionists” (“loyal” to the United Kingdom and fiercely committed to keeping Northern Ireland part of that union) who are provoking most of the unrest.
Alarm at the rising tension has grown to such an extent that Protestant and Catholic politicians have called in Richard Haass, a senior American diplomat who was once US special envoy for Northern Ireland. Haass, who began his work in November, reports that Americans are surprised to learn of his task, assuming that the situation in Northern Ireland has been resolved. “The news of the violence over the last six to nine months comes as a surprise, to be honest,” he says. “An unwelcome surprise at that.”