Page last updated at 00:50 GMT, Tuesday, 12 July 2011 01:50 UK

Pockets of resistance wedded to N Ireland violence

Liz MacKean reports on the reappearance of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's annual marching season, which culminates on Tuesday with the 12 July parades, has seen some of the worst violence in years, prompting politicians to appeal for calm.

While most of Northern Ireland moves away from The Troubles, Liz MacKean examines why, on both sides of the sectarian divide, there are significant pockets of resistance to peace.

East Belfast
East Belfast sits in the shadow of Harland and Wolff's famous cranes

The mighty yellow cranes that stand over loyalist east Belfast recall the days when the area teemed with shipyard workers.

With the collapse of ship building, those same streets are now among the poorest in the United Kingdom.

One tradition holds good though - just around the corner from the flat where footballer George Best grew up, a tower of wooden pallets is being erected.

This is one of many bonfires lit on Monday night for the climax of the marching season, the loyalist celebration of their history of devotion to Queen and country.

This is where I meet a group of teenagers who have just witnessed the most violent street disturbances in a decade. Over two nights, hundreds of youths were involved as a Protestant mob laid siege to the Short Strand, a small area of Catholic homes.


The group has worked to improve their area, even setting up a drop-in centre for bored teenagers. And yet they all seem resigned to a future of conflict.

Lisa tells me: "There's been that much anger between Protestants and Catholics, it's not going to be resolved quite easily."

Her friend Abie adds: "There's obviously going to be conflict between both sides because there always has been."

Masked Catholic youths in Belfast
Youngsters from both sides have been involved in clashes

A few streets away I meet another group of teenagers. They too would have been barely out of nappies when the main paramilitary groups called ceasefires and yet they say they have grown up in an atmosphere of sectarian hatred.

One, speaking anonymously, told me he had happily taken part in the rioting: "I call it helping out... Throw a couple of missiles... just bricks, bottles, just anything you can get a hold of. Just throw them over."

He is referring to the artificial "peace wall" that separates the Protestant and Catholic houses where for two nights police had dealt with petrol bombs, missiles and even gunfire, coming from both sides.

With his hood up to hide his face, the teenager tells me that Catholics had started the trouble. Other people tell me the same story - for months bricks and other missiles had been lobbed over the wall from the Short Strand side until eventually Protestants living around the Lower Newtownards Road erupted in retaliatory anger.

UVF involvement claim

But the police say something else - that the trouble was orchestrated by local members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the largest loyalist paramilitary group. In recent weeks, paramilitary murals have re-appeared at the gable ends in east Belfast.

Bonfire being prepared
Loyalists built massive bonfires to light on Monday night

In its final report on the state of paramilitary ceasefires, the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) warned that loyalists were "finding it difficult to contemplate going out of business".

They certainly are not getting involved in politics. Brian Ervine failed to get elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in east Belfast. His Progressive Unionist Party has links with the UVF.

He tells me: "The main leadership of the UVF wish to move on... but there are elements within the UVF, I believe, that do not wish to do so.

"There's a phrase that springs to mind that patriotism is a last refuge of a scoundrel and I believe that certain people wrap themselves up in a Union flag and claim to be defenders of the working class unionist community and basically they're up to no good."

The question of how much influence that they can still wield matters deeply at a time when former IRA members who don't support the peace process remain active and dangerous.

Earlier this year they murdered a young Catholic police officer. On both sides of the border there have been notable finds of arms and bomb-making equipment, but the so-called "dissidents" remain, in the words of the same IICD report, "brutally active".

Dirty protest

The main republican paramilitary groups, the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) all have members in Maghaberry Prison, Northern Ireland's maximum security jail.

Burnt out cars in Ballyclare
Violence erupted in Ballyclare on Saturday night

Despite the best efforts of the peace process to treat them as criminals, these prisoners are separately housed. They are involved in a bitter dispute with the authorities over the issues of strip-searching and controlled movement around the prison.

The row was supposed to be resolved by an agreement last year between the prisoners and David Ford, the local justice minister. The prison service says it is honouring the agreement, but the prisoners claim they are still subject to unnecessary body searches and brutal treatment.

A group of prisoners, including Colin Duffy, on remand for the murders of two soldiers at Massereene Army Base in 2009, are engaged in a dirty protest - chucking faeces and excrement onto the landings. Their supporters tell me the protest is spreading.

Alternative view

On the 30th anniversary of the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands, the treatment of prisoners remains a touchstone issue for republicans.

Brendan Conway has just been released on bail. He told me that republican prisoners are uniting in a way that if repeated on the outside, would be a major concern for the police and security forces.

"It's a common cause... they are now in effect unified in the way they're dealing with it... republicans will not allow themselves... to be criminalised and to be degraded and humiliated."

Rory McIlroy
Golfer Rory McIlroy offers a new image of Northern Ireland

The dispute offers further proof of the hardening of positions at both ends of the sectarian divide.

A visit to the Holywood Hills, overlooking east Belfast, serves as a reminder of how different the rest of Northern Ireland is. The golf club here is the centre of what is known as "Rory Glory", the triumph of young golfer Rory McIlroy at this year's US Open.

It is early in the morning and it is pouring with rain, but there is no shortage of young golfers coming out to practise. One tells me: "I think he's shown what Northern Ireland can produce, not just produce rioting and fighting."

Such has been the enthusiasm that the club has just had to close its membership to juniors - a new generation for whom violence is the last thing on their minds.

Watch Liz MacKean's full report from Belfast on Tuesday 12 July 2011 on Newsnight at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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