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Friday, 11 January, 2002, 10:37 GMT
Belfast riots go back centuries
Riots near Holy Cross School
Divisions in the Ardoyne date from the city's early years
Think the sectarian battles in Belfast emerged with the start of the Troubles some 30-odd years ago? Think again - such tensions have existed almost as long as the city itself.

Once again violence has flared in Belfast, centred on Ardoyne.

People threw stones across the same stretch of road their forebears had 100 years beforehand

Martin Melaugh
For this is an area where sectarian tensions run deep, and not just during the past three decades of political violence. The frictions between the Catholic and Protestant communities living cheek by jowl have periodically flared into riots for more than 150 years.

"This has been a feature of Belfast as long as there has been a Belfast," says Martin Melaugh, of the University of Ulster's Cain (Conflict Archive on the Internet) project.

"In the Shankill Road riots in 1969, people were throwing stones across the same stretch of road that their forebears had 100 years beforehand."

Long-standing divisions

These tensions date from the early 19th Century when Belfast was rapidly transformed from a collection of villages into a thriving industrial city.

Protestant enclave
The kerb colour indicates which side of the divide
Workers flocked to Belfast and more often than not banded together in segregated communities - divisions that are still largely in place today.

In the north and west of the city, around the Ardoyne and Falls Roads respectively, small Catholic and Protestant enclaves formed a patchwork of orange and green where close neighbours were often bitter enemies.

In these tinderbox areas, seemingly minor incidents had the potential to escalate rapidly.

"Those who originally laid out and developed Belfast would no doubt recognise the lines of division - for instance that the Falls Road was a Catholic area and still is," Dr Melaugh says.

'Violence, outrage'

Although the worst riots in living memory were in 1971 - the year the UK Government introduced internment as sectarian violence began to escalate - the city's flashpoints had erupted as long ago as the mid-19th Century.

In 1836, the Orange Order was banned by the Party Processions Act after numerous clashes with Catholics (a move repealed in 1872).

A Catholic youth sizes up a police truck
And in 1857, the riots sparked by the Orangemen's July celebrations were severe enough to prompt a government inquiry into the violence.

The British-appointed commissioners found that such parades led to "violence, outrage, religious animosities, hatred between classes and, too often, loss of life".

They concluded that the parade's purpose that year had been "to remind one party of their triumph of their ancestors over those of the other and to inculcate feelings of Protestant superiority over their Roman Catholic neighbours".
Some of the lowpoints
1836: Orange Order banned after clashes
1857: Ten days of serious rioting
1872: Riots following Catholic march
1886: 31 people die in riots
1920s: Serious gun battles, hundreds die
1932: Riots during the depression
1966: Riots over 1916 Easter Rising commemorations
1969: Conflict leads to troops being deployed
1971: Worst riots in living memory and internment herald 30 years of Troubles

Michael Poole, co-author of the book Ethnic Residential Segregation in Belfast, told BBC News Online that such violence led to further segregation as those in the minority sought safety by moving to be among their own.

Thus the Troubles of the 19th Century stretched into the 20th, with sporadic outbursts of violence - such as gun battles in the 1920s - in the lead-up to the particularly traumatic years from 1971.

Despite taking steps towards peace, sectarian divisions in Belfast have worsened since the IRA ceasefire in 1994, according to early 2001 census returns released to the Northern Ireland academic, Peter Shirlow.

He found that 66% of people living in estates are in an area where the population is either 90% Protestant or 90% Catholic. Ten years ago, 63% lived in such communities.

It is a terrible recurring problem

Michael Poole
About two-thirds of 18 to 25-year-olds said they had never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the other section of the community.

For many others, it is galling that these divided neighbours cut themselves off from each other in a time when power-sharing is operating at Stormont.

See also:

11 Jan 02 | N Ireland
10 Jan 02 | N Ireland
10 Jan 02 | N Ireland
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