Violence in Belfast: Understanding the Twelfth of July Riots

In the week following July 12th, the streets of Belfast saw a kind of violence all too familiar to the residents of this divided city, and to the watching world. The tension underlying this most recent outburst, a series of violent and nonviolent protests surrounding the annual Twelfth of July parades, has its roots in centuries of conflict.

It’s a complex story to grasp, partially because it began centuries ago. Back in 1542, when King Henry VIII claimed Ireland for England, Protestant English settlers flooded into the country, and the Catholic Irish resisted their settlement. Over the next century, the Irish resistors were largely conquered, and the dawn of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of a united Great Britain and Ireland. In the nineteenth century, the cause of Home Rule – the demand for autonomy from Great Britain – was taken up by many. Most of Ireland wanted Home Rule – except for the residents of the northern province of Ulster. When the country was partitioned in 1921, those six counties of Ulster would become Northern Ireland, determined to remain aligned with the United Kingdom. The hope of many was to work towards a peacefully reunited Ireland, but events in the twentieth century – both in Ireland and across the world – rendered that increasingly unlikely. In Northern Ireland, Catholics were once again the minority, and they experienced systematic discrimination at the hands of the Protestant majority. In the 1960s, the divisions in Northern Ireland erupted into outright sectarian violence. This period of violence, known as the Troubles, is generally considered to have lasted until 1998, unsteadily concluding with the passage of the Good Friday Agreement. Over three thousand people died during the Troubles.

It’s often difficult to understand just who is fighting whom, and over what. While the division is largely drawn along religious lines, with Catholics falling on one side and Protestants on the other, this is still a conflict of politics, of nationhood. Unionists, who are typically Protestant and in the majority in Northern Ireland, seek to maintain Northern Ireland’s relationship and loyalty to the United Kingdom. On the other side, there are the nationalists, who are typically Catholic, and in the minority in Northern Ireland. Nationalists advocate for a united, independent Ireland. There are different valences of unionists and nationalists, and there are other names for the two sides of this conflict – the terms republican and loyalist are often employed as more extreme, more charged names for nationalists and unionists respectively.

But what happened in Belfast this week to ignite this conflict yet again?

The short answer is that violence often disrupts this city and its residents. But the events of the last week did mark a particularly explosive bout of protests, the likes of which some residents reported they had not seen in years. And so, as those of us outside Belfast see images of protestors and police forces, burnt out cars and bombed streets, we are left to wonder, why now? What made this week any different than the one before?

From Easter-time through the early fall, streets across Northern Ireland, and particularly in the city of Belfast, are taken over by annual parades. The majority of the parades in Belfast are organized by Protestant fraternal organization. Much of mainstream American coverage of these parades has termed them “marches,” which carries a different connotation to an American audience. The parades commemorate historical events, but with a sectarian charge. They’re celebratory in nature, and recur annually. In the broader context of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland, the parades symbolically claim parts of Belfast for particular ideological factions, and the parade routes are often designed to provoke the other side of the divide.

The Twelfth of July parades are primarily organized by the Orange Order, a major Protestant organization, to celebrate the anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant king – William III of Orange – successfully fought James II, the deposed Catholic leader. This year, the Orange Order’s proposed route – which treaded into the nationalist neighborhood of Ardoyne – was rejected by the Parades Commission, a government oversight body. When police officers attempted to enforce the ban, Protestant protestors fought back with bricks and various types of bombs. British police forces were deployed to Belfast to manage the conflict, which continued through last Friday.

Water cannons and other methods of crowd control have been enacted against the rioters, as seen in the shocking photograph above, captured by David Fitzgerald and published in the Belfast Telegraph on July 15, 2013.

Photograph from the Belfast Telegraph.
Photograph from the Belfast Telegraph.

Cars were hijacked and then set aflame; on the fifth night of the riots, over thirty petrol bombs were thrown at police officers. In addition to nights of violence, the city has seen some peaceful protests. While round of violence has largely been perpetrated by unionist factions, the city was similarly disrupted last year by nationalist protestors. One week out from the Twelfth, the city reportedly calmed down, but tensions again stirred as the Parades Commission rejected the Orange Order’s new application to parade on July 20th along the originally planned Twelfth route from Shankill Road to Ligoniel Orange Hall. The Orange Order called for nonviolent resistance to the Parades Commission’s ruling, but many anticipated another eruption of violence if unionist protestors again defied the Commission’s ban on parading in the predominantly nationalist neighborhood.

The parade of July 20th proceeded with little disruption, and the violent character of the preceding week’s events seems to have dissipated. In compliance with the Parades Commission’s ban, participants in the parade were stopped on the Woodvale Road, before they could reach the nationalist neighborhood of Ardoyne. Leaders of the Orange Order organized a peaceful protest of the Parades Commission, calling for its dissolution and for the right to continue the parade along the originally planned route. The protestors plan to return to that spot along the Woodvale Road every Saturday until these demands are met.

The Irish Times reports that US Vice President Joe Biden expressed his concern for the violent disruptions to Peter Robinson, the first minister of Northern Ireland, after four nights of violence. Over seventy police officers were injured in the week of violence; reports of civilian casualties are hard to come by. A leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was knocked unconscious during the riots, caught in the path of a flying object deployed by a rioter. As of July 20th, seventy-eight people had been arrested for their participation in the riots, and they will stand trial in the coming days.

After almost a week of continual rioting, it seems that the temperature of the city has lowered, almost as quickly as it rose on the Twelfth. But this isn’t the end to the story of Belfast, and if the leaders of the Orange Order continue to organize protests against the Parades Commission, pushing for the right to parade through the Arndoyle neighborhood, violence may return to the streets of Belfast.

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