Initial media reaction, and indeed that of most people, to the violence in east Belfast in the past week was that it was yet another example of sectarian hatreds spilling over into serious civil disturbance.
The two tribes were at it again, was how it was reported on Monday night and Tuesday morning: Two young men wounded by gunfire (and a third, a press photographer, shot in the thigh the following night); hundreds of men, and some young women, hurling rocks and invective; pensioners’ dwellings wrecked; families cowering in the back of their homes as pieces of concrete shattered living room windows; thousands of pounds of damage caused to police vehicles; petrol bombs thrown and powerful fireworks used as weapons.
The reports could have been lifted from the newspapers of the summer and autumn of 2000 when the same neighbourhood was the scene of months-long intense sectarian strife.
The resurgence of the recent violence week was declared by the media to be particularly ill-timed because it detracted from the good news story of a young County Down man returning home after winning the United States Open golf championship.
There were two sets of people, however, who knew the truth behind the two days of violence centred on the little nationalist area known as Short Strand, called for one of the two main roads which run through St Matthew’s parish.
Those who knew how the violence originated were the people of that area and the east Belfast members of the loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Minutes after 9pm on Monday, a large group of men dressed in black or in camouflage gear, wearing gloves and with balaclava masks covering their faces, marched from a loyalist area onto the Mountpottinger Road, a main artery into Belfast city centre lined with the homes hundreds of nationalists.
Estimates of UVF numbers vary between 60 and 100. No one had time to count. The men, armed with baseball bats, batons and rocks, attacked homes and cars. The result was inevitable. Dozens of nationalists tackled the group which was rapidly reinforced by young loyalists from nearby streets.
Police intervened and a tense stand-off ensued. It was merely the prologue to two nights of fear and terror for many Catholic and Protestant families.
The UVF switched their operation to the lower end of the Short Strand where St Matthew’s Catholic church fronted the Newtownards Road. A recently-built loyalist housing estate directly opposite the church provided a base for the UVF and its supporters. With just the width of the road separating them, a fierce battle broke out between loyalists and nationalists. The two loyalist men received wounds to their lower legs when shots were fired from the nationalist side.
This was followed by gunfire from the loyalist side which police later claimed was aimed at their vehicles.
Belfast’s newly-installed lord mayor, an articulate 26-year-old recently elected as Sinn Fein councillor for the area, was the first to indicate that the violence not had been spontaneous. It was, he told journalists on Monday night, an orchestrated attack by loyalist paramilitaries.
An uneasy peace prevailed from the early hours of Tuesday until later that day when hostilities were resumed, more intense than ever.
The lord mayor’s claim was enlarged on by a veteran Sinn Fein councillor during a BBC radio interview on Tuesday morning. Shortly afterwards, on the same radio station, a respected senior journalist pointed the finger at the Ulster Volunteer Force. He cited internal problems in the UVF, difficulties with the local leadership and the group’s fears about the activities of the Historical Enquiries Team, the police squad tasked with investigating old unsolved serious crimes, including many sectarian murders.
Later that day, a police commander confirmed that the UVF had been responsible for organising the disturbances
The first public indications of serious discontent within the east Belfast UVF had come a few weeks beforehand. Following the group’s claim to have decommissioned its weapons, bloody-thirsty wall murals depicting sinister masked figures carrying firearms had been replaced with community or industrial scenes.
A number of these were re-painted in recent weeks and the threatening UVF figures once more adorned gables walls in the Newtownards Road area. Anyone who cared to ask the paramilitary group was told it was a message to the Historical Enquiries Team. Simply put, that UVF message was: “If you are going to re-visit the past by arresting and charging our members with crimes of many years ago, we will also re-visit the past.”
That warning, while no doubt noted by the HET, the police and the various intelligence agencies, appears to have went unheeded. The UVF was forced to back up its threats with actions which would highlight their grievances. As often in the past, this took the form of a co-ordinated attack on the nationalist community in the neighbouring Short Strand. This, they correctly predicted, would bring nationalists onto the streets to defend their parish.
The UVF had little trouble finding support among loyalist residents near St Matthew’s church. For months previously, a small band of unruly nationalist youths had been plaguing the nearby Protestant community with their anti-social behaviour and stone-throwing, sometimes resulting in injuries to passers-by. The actions of the teenagers had played no small part in heightening tensions in what had always been a sectarian interface.
What the loyalist people did not realise was that the quality of life of their nationalist neighbours was also significantly lowered by the activities of the gang despite the best efforts of local community activists. There is little doubt that the trouble-makers were true cross-community louts, as evidenced by their frequent stoning of St Matthew’s parochial house, the home of the parish priest, and the regular smashing of windows in nearby nationalist homes.
There is also truth in claims that in recent years, loyalist and nationalist youths – who in another age or in time of war would be considered the warrior class – used mobile telephones and social networking sites to organise so-called recreational rioting sessions.
The recent trouble, vicious and dangerous while it lasted, was described as the worst in the area for many years. However, it bears little comparison to the events of the summer and autumn of 2002.
That year, the UVF and later the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) maintained a well-organised and sustained campaign of attacks on parts of the Short Strand. Working in shifts, they kept up an almost continuous bombardment of missiles into a number of the area’s streets. Petrol bombs, paint bombs, acid bombs, industrial-sized nuts and bolts, bottles and even golf balls stolen from a driving range, were used as weapons.
Short Strand nationalists, perhaps feeling that their generations-old siege mentality was well-justified, defended their parish with equal ferocity. In one case, a petrol bomb thrown by a nationalist ignited a fire which totally destroyed a loyalist home. Somewhat bizarrely, the roof of a pensioners’ bungalow on the nationalist side eventually collapsed from the pummelling and with the sheer weight of debris on the tiles and joists. Dozens of other homes on both sides of the divide were seriously damaged.
To combat fire-bombs, homes in the front line each had a fire extinguisher and each street had a fire-hose rigged up to the water mains. The hoses were in regular use.
Community activists on the nationalist side, who had previously been involved in invaluable mediation work, reported that the mobile telephones of loyalist opposite numbers had been turned off. Communication lines were eventually restored but for long periods mediation attempts were totally ineffective.
Several families on both sides could take no more and moved out while many others suffered trauma in varying degrees before the violence petered out as winter approached. Extra “peace” walls were built around the Short Strand and existing walls built even higher, leading to nationalist comments on “the Warsaw ghettoes” and enforcing parishioners’ sense of isolation and siege.
That violent episode was also portrayed in the media, and by the authorities and senior politicians of the day, as “mindless sectarian violence.” Headlines typically proclaimed: “More tit-for-tat sectarian attacks in Short Strand.” Few bothered trying to unravel the reasoning behind the riots.
Loyalist insecurity and fear was largely responsible for the initiation of that period of violence which resulted in the almost total sealing-off of the Short Strand.
With its relatively high birth-rate, and space for new housing development severely restricted, it seemed natural to suggest that young families in the burgeoning Short Strand should set up home in nearby loyalist streets with available housing. As far as is known, no Catholic family actually applied to be housed in these streets but the mere suggestion immediately triggered alarm bells in loyalist and unionist circles.
In previous years, when Catholics moved into a Protestant street in a relatively peaceful area, it often broke the dam and led to members of their wider family circle buying or renting nearby houses. This frequently resulted in Protestant perceptions that Catholics “were taking over”.
One demographer explained that often it would be a police officer who was the first person to re-locate from a street into which Catholics had moved. This was not through bigotry, but mainly for security reasons. The new neighbours would not necessarily intend the officer harm but the reasoning was that they might have relatives who were former republican prisoners or even active republicans who did have harmful intent. It followed that when a solid citizen such as a police officer thought it prudent to move, other residents would feel unsafe and move out as well, leaving more homes to be sold to more Catholics.
It was that line of thought which caused alarm in east Belfast where there were many empty houses. People with decent jobs tended to move their families from troubled areas to developments on the outskirts of the city leaving behind the disadvantaged and economically-deprived. Among these residents were hard-line loyalists and paramilitaries and the last thing they wanted was to be over-run by Catholic neighbours.
More importantly, a road near the Short Strand is the gathering point for Orange Order lodges of Number Six District, one of the largest Orange districts in the world. Dozens of marching bands and hundreds of Orange men and women come each July 12 from around east Belfast to assemble at Templemore Avenue, before marching to the “Field” on the outskirts of south Belfast. In the evening they march back to Templemore Avenue where they disperse.
The thoroughfare is less than 200 yards from Catholic streets. It was not a particularly volatile sectarian flashpoint, but streets leading to it from St Matthew’s Parish contained many empty houses.
In recent years throughout the north, there has been an upsurge in Catholic objections to Orange Order parades passing along their streets or near their homes.
Demographic change too, has meant that Catholics have become the majority in formerly Protestant areas. Loyalists and unionists simply could not countenance the thought of Short Strand nationalists and Catholics moving into houses near Templemore Avenue and eventually objecting to the traditional gathering of lodges there.
Something had to be done – and it was. The paramilitaries were called in and a series of riots organised. This was intensified until eventually attacks were taking place 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Catholics were intimidated from nearby shops and shop-keepers warned not to serve them. Many little businesses could not survive without Catholic trade and were forced to close with the result that a run-down area became even more run-down.
Politicians were encouraged to demand the closing-off of the main street leading from the heart of the Short Strand to Templemore Avenue – and it was.
Months of sustained attacks, and the violent nationalist response and counter-attacks, set back the peace process in the area by years and put fences on top of already high dividing walls.
At the time, people were asking why the authorities were doing little or nothing to end the torment of the two communities.
They are still asking.
The author is a long-time analyst of events in Northern Ireland