Rioting for more cultural recognition

In Northern Ireland, where respect for cultural identity is King, communities that feel disrespected start riots.

Jason Walsh

Topics World

Not for the first time, not even for the first time this year, north Belfast is engulfed in sectarian riots. Why is this still happening, 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement supposedly sealed the deal on peace?

For three consecutive nights this week, embittered loyalists clashed with police, resulting in injuries to more than 60 officers. The proximate cause of this latest outburst of street violence was that loyalists objected to a republican parade. In recent months, and previous years, the brick has often been in the other hand, with republicans attacking police in response to loyalist marches. Many expect further trouble later this month when loyalists will march to commemorate the 1912 signing of the anti-Home Rule Ulster Covenant.

Riots are obviously problematic. But the deeper problem is the question of what it is that makes rioting an almost productive activity in Northern Ireland today; the answer is not a comfortable one.

Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness described the riots as ‘a terrible display of bigotry and sectarianism’. And no doubt they were. Yet what McGuinness and his fellow political leaders fail to recognise is that sectarianism is built into the very fabric of the peace process that brought the war in Northern Ireland to an end and which now governs this part of the United Kingdom.

For those not familiar with the argot of the peace process, when McGuinness attacks sectarianism he is is only talking about the bad, stone-throwing, street-fighting sectarianism of certain communities; he is not talking about the same sectarianism that is entrenched by the ‘peace process’ itself and which, under the name of cultural diversity, infuses the governing structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly itself.

The peace process delivered an end to war, but in elevating parity of esteem and respect for cultural difference above all else, it also turned demands for community respect into the political currency of the New Northern Ireland. And frequently, these demands for respect can mutate into inchoate rage. Like much else in post-settlement Northern Ireland, the recent riots have been about cultural identity, not politics. The peace process, which has now been going on in one form or another since the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, is now seen as an end in and of itself. There is no natural or political endpoint to it – it is permanent process that seeks to keep Northern Ireland pacified through satiating the concerns and flattering the identities of both the loyalist and nationalist communities.

I don’t for one minute share the political outlook of Ulster loyalists, but their frustration with the Parades Commission, the body that decides if marches go ahead, isn’t hard to understand. At a time when loyalists are frequently depicted as Neanderthals, they have come to view the Parades Commission as a virtual republican plot to marginialise loyalist culture. It isn’t, of course, but it is high-handed, and if you believe in freedom of assembly at all, then you should defend it even for people you don’t much like, including loyalists.

Writing this from the not-so-leafy environs of west Belfast, ground zero for much of the 30-year conflict, it is striking just how normal things are here. Normal, of course, because it is an almost uniformly republican district. The same cannot be said of north Belfast, scene of the now perennial riots. North Belfast is a complex patchwork of republican and loyalist districts, some consisting of only a few streets backing on to those inhabited by the enemy. People who don’t much like one another, and whose different political desires have all been frustrated, live cheek-by-jowl. Officialdom’s answer has been to patronise and indulge them, occasionally to punish them, but at all costs to contain them, principally by re-routing their political aspirations as much as their physical parades.

Northern Ireland in general and north Belfast in particular are, in short, a prototype for a multicultural society: divided, but with communities subject to official recognition and ‘respect’. Cultural equality takes precedence over actual political and economic matters. A process which encourages communities to see the preservation and celebration of their cultures as the be-all and end-all of political life shouldn’t be surprised when, feeling that their culture is being dis-respected and denied esteem, some members of those communities take to the streets. The riots are an offshoot of the peace process itself.

Few will say the obvious: whatever the merits of the peace process, a culture war is not actually peace. For those who don’t want to get caught up in the war of words, the unspoken slogan in Northern Ireland is no longer ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ but ‘whatever you say, say nothing negative about the peace process in case it sparks a return to actual war’. There is very little criticism, or even frank discussion, of the peace process itself.

In the meantime, nationalists and loyalists are encouraged to jockey for position, rioting being only an uglier method of attaining recognition. It’s hard to see how multiculturalism Northern Ireland-style could have had any other outcome. Events in Northern Ireland expose the cultural separatism that is inherent in the multicultural outlook. The intentional nurturing of difference strips us of our common humanity, categorises us using identities not of our own choosing, divides us, and all but forbids the universalism that can make real politics work.

Make no mistake about it, Northern Ireland’s governing structures nurture difference, and in doing so they create grievances that are then played out in violent street battles for more cultural recognition. True, they are sham fights when compared with the Troubles, but that doesn’t make them less troubling.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. Visit his web site at He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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Topics World


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