Ireland: Tensions escalate as Loyalists march through the Ardoyne

Nationalist youth across the Six Counties fought street battles against both the British Army and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in response to the Loyalist summer marching season. Sinn Fein was forced into policing its own community. The peace process was already in crisis because of the refusal of Unionism to share devolved power with nationalists. In June Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, stated that ‘the days of the Belfast Agreement are over’. Now the refusal of nationalists to have their rights trampled on by loyalist bigots threatens to destabilise the fragile political process completely. Prime Minister Tony Blair has had to admit that the British government may now have to look for a solution beyond the Good Friday Agreement.

On 12 July over 100,000 Orangemen, women and children marched across the north of Ireland. Trouble flared in the nationalist Ardoyne when, despite a Parades Commission ruling that only the Orange Orders could march past nationalist shops, hundreds of loyalist supporters were permitted to walk up the road singing the Orange anthem, protected by 2,000 British soldiers. Barricaded behind steel fences, nationalists turned on riot police with bottles, rocks, bricks and trees uprooted from gardens. Tensions run high in this area of Belfast where loyalist death squads have carried out hundreds of terror attacks against Catholics. North Belfast is also the area where three years ago loyalist mobs besieged the Catholic Holy Cross School terrorising children on their way to school.

The British army and PSNI used water cannon to disperse the nationalist protests, which continued for hours. One local man suffered a heart attack and died at the scene. The ambulance had been prevented from going beyond the PSNI lines.

Local Sinn Fein representatives attempted to prevent conflict. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams explained his party’s role by saying: ‘Despite the efforts of republican and nationalist stewards, the deep-rooted anger ...which had been building for some time within republicanism and nationalism, exploded’. In one incident senior Republicans intervened to save 15 British soldiers from a group of nationalist youth using baseball bats and bricks. The PSNI stated that 25 police officers received injuries, as did British soldiers. Many more local residents were rushed from the scene covered in blood, the result of PSNI/ British Army baton round attacks. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly suffered a broken wrist from a baton attack as he attempted to restore order.

Vested in the Good Friday Agreement are the hopes of the middle class who seek an impartial police force to govern a normalised Six Counties. However impartiality is not an option for the rebadged RUC, the PSNI, whose role is to defend British imperialist interests in the north of Ireland. This means defending the rights of the Unionists and hence the subjugation of the Catholic community. It is this supremacist tradition that the Orange marches represent.

The Republican Movement has been manoeuvred into a position of political weakness, resulting in several acts of decommissioning by the IRA. This process of ‘demilitarisation’, enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement, is supposed to work in tandem with the ‘political process’ and the withdrawal of British troops. Yet British troop levels have remained static since January 2002 at 13,500 soldiers. This compares to 8,500 deployed in the occupation of Iraq. Britain maintains a greater military presence in Ireland than in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Gibraltar, Kosovo and Iraq combined. According to the British Ministry of Defence ‘there will always be a British military garrison in Northern Ireland’ even if so-called ‘normalisation’ is achieved.

In reaching out to a ‘progressive’ side of Unionism, Sinn Fein risks alienating its support base within the nationalist working class. Leading up to the marching season, the Sinn Fein newspaper AP/RN (8 July 2004) suggested that ‘dialogue, respect and accommodation are the challenges facing the Orange Order today’. The Unionist response came almost immediately on the streets of Springfield and Ardoyne. In Lisburn council, Unionists for the second year running voted themselves on to all the key chair and vice-chair committee posts.

On 13 July nationalist youths responded to another loyalist march in Lurgan by attacking the police station with petrol bombs and bricks. The British army also came under attack.

The mass street protests by nationalists are a legitimate expression of anger and frustration at the lack of any political progress. The recent election of two Sinn Fein members to the European Parliament will change nothing. While loyalist attacks continue and nationalists’ rights are trampled on, resistance from the nationalist youth is inevitable. Sinn Fein is boycotting the police boards, but it might just as well be on them given the role it played in assisting the British military in ‘calming’ the Ardoyne protest. On 13 July, Ardoyne residents vented their frustration at the role played by Republican leaders, including Adams and Kelly, in a meeting AP/RN described as ‘frank and occasionally heated’.

With the Republican movement increasingly dependent upon a political process that discriminates against nationalists, such tension and the emergence of new forces of resistance are inevitable. The street battles in Ardoyne may be the beginning of such a trend within a nationalist working class sick of bigotry and discrimination.


FRFI 180 August / September 2004