Payback time in Belfast

Observations on Northern Ireland. By <strong>John Ofarrell</strong>

News of riots in Belfast prompted familiar questions from perplexed observers. Why were loyalists attacking the forces of the Crown? Why were they so outraged that an Orange parade had been shifted a hundred yards? And what do unionists want? The scary answer is that they don't know.

One sign of the feelings of Ulster Protestants was a text message that did the rounds after Northern Ireland's 1-0 victory over David Beckham, Wayne Rooney et al: "Anglo-Irish Agreement? Downing Street Declaration? Good Friday Agreement? Payback time!"

There is a tendency among loyalists to feel lonely, unloved and conspired against. The weekend riots across working-class areas may have been sparked by an Orange parade, but they had an air of inevitability. For months loyalist paramilitaries have been busy, with the Ulster Defence Association purging Ian Paisley's North Antrim constituency of Catholics and the Ulster Volunteer Force cleaning up their former comrades in the Loyalist Volunteer Force: four LVF men have been murdered. Attempts by the police to arrest UVF suspects have ended in riots.

Last weekend the UVF and UDA provided guns for shooting and pipe and petrol bombs for throwing at the police and army. Those who actually did the shooting and throwing, the front-line soldiers of loyalism, were barely out of nappies when the terrorist organisations announced their ceasefires in 1994. They inhabit the "narrowest cultural and political arena in western Europe", according to Dr Peter Shirlow, a political geographer at the University of Ulster. They hold "an identity not based on introspection and questioning but based upon an imagination of fatalism, sectarian stereotyping and hate".

Shirlow's fieldwork on both sides of the sectarian divide in north and west Belfast shows that neither has any idea about the daily life of the other. He found that 73 per cent of young Protestants have never had a meaningful conversation with a Catholic contemporary. Evidence is

emerging that "cross-community" events to promote understanding are being used to gather intelligence for sectarian attacks.

Northern Ireland is developing a system of apartheid where one can get through life without the inconvenience of sharing resources such as schools, public services and even swimming pools. According to the non-sectarian Alliance Party, £1bn is spent every year duplicating services, because people are too afraid to cross the divide. Most council wards in working-class areas of Belfast are 90 per cent Catholic or Protestant. One child in 20 attends an integrated school.

Differences created by economics, history and geography are compounded by differences in what could be called political confidence. There are four main social groups: middle-class Protestants who are comfortable with their Britishness, do not feel under threat and will happily support the Irish rugby team; middle-class Catholics who know they are probably the most pampered minority in Europe in terms of jobs, income, lifestyle and cultural expression; working-class Catholics who vote Sinn Fein and talk the victim talk like nobody else, but feel they have won something in the decade since the 1994 ceasefires. That leaves the lumpen "Prods".

Of the teenage rioters on the Shankill, about 2 per cent have a GCSE. Not one schoolchild in any Shankill primary school passed the 11-plus exam last year. Those who get a decent job or an education get out. The only role models are loyalist criminals. The only political message is the grim certainties of Paisley's DUP - the Taigs are rolling in it and the Brits are stripping Prods of their birthright.

Thatcherism and globalisation removed Belfast's heavy industry, and with it the old culture of guilds and trade unions. All that is left for the Prods is contempt from the Protestant middle class, loathing from a confident Catholic working class, hatred from the police, and siren voices offering leadership to an almost mythological Protestant state that vanished before they were born.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The gathering storm