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Friday, 22 June, 2001, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Deep-seated tensions behind violence
Burnt-out cars
Riots have occurred throughout the troubles
By BBC Ireland correspondent Kevin Connolly

The continuing violence in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast has exposed once again the sectarian tensions which lie beneath the surface of life in Northern Ireland.

The bald facts give some hint as to the intensity of the rioting, which at its peak resembled something from the earlier, more violent days of the troubles.

Rounds of live ammunition fired, hundreds of petrol bombs thrown, loyalist protesters accused of attacking an ambulance crew as it rescued an injured police officer.

Worker clearing up
Workers started clearing up early on Thursday
There were 600 rioters on the streets at one point, with rival communities mounting a sustained attack on the police who were hard-pressed to keep them apart.

It is serious violence which grew suddenly out of a series of sectarian incidents that in themselves might seem trivial to outsiders.

But such sudden escalations of ancient tensions in this deeply-divided society are obviously not just the backdrop to the troubles, but one of the primary causes.

Population movements

Clashes like those seen on Wednesday night have a long history in Northern Ireland stretching back into the 19th century and reaching peaks of bloody violence in the 1920s and 1970s.

Over the course of the modern troubles, and particularly after they first erupted at the end of the 1960s there have been substantial movements of population within Belfast.

Police face petrol bombs
Police faced petrol bombs as well as tackling 600 rioters
One of the main results is that mixed areas have become less and less common and rival communities now tend to live separately in clearly delineated territories.

The area at the heart of the overnight violence is one of the few exceptions.

Ardoyne is a hardline republican area to the north of the city centre just off the Crumlin Road.

Beside it, off the main road, are equally hardline loyalist areas.

In those conditions, relatively small disputes can quickly escalate into something much more sinister and much more serious.

Familiar pattern

One moment the dispute is over the route followed by Catholic girls and their parents to a local primary school, and over the raising of flags on lamp-posts by loyalists marking the marching season.

Stones are thrown, larger and larger mobs gather, and soon, a familiar pattern is established.

Each side alleges that political and paramilitary leaders on the other are orchestrating the violence.

With everyone involved in the power-sharing government waiting to see what will happen if David Trimble makes good his threat to resign by 1 July over the decommissioning issue, these are tense times in Northern Ireland.

But the reality is that such upsurges in violence are probably more related to deep-seated sectarian tensions rather than to any direct relationship to the troubled peace process.

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See also:

19 Jun 01 | Northern Ireland
Riot police called to school attack
20 Jun 01 | Northern Ireland
Police keep factions apart
15 Jun 01 | Northern Ireland
Clashes at Orange parade
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