Anatomy of a riot
by Laura Friel
Originally published between July 16-18, 2001
Humanist historian E.P. Thompson argues that sometimes history is so polarised that you have to take sides and suggests that the moral choice favours the marginalised, the poor and oppressed.
It's a view that would most likely be rejected by mainstream journalists working in the north of Ireland, who like to see themselves as neutral observers bringing clarity and understanding to often complicated and confusing situations. This is a worthy aspiration but sadly one that isn't without its own pitfalls. The most striking of these includes the surrender of observer status to the state and the imposition of a notion of 'balance' upon the more fundamental notion of 'neutral.'
Last week witnessed an upsurge in loyalist violence, both across the north and particularly in Belfast. It didn't come out of the blue. For over a year there has been a steady increase in violent activity by loyalist paramilitaries testing the parameters of their so-called ceasefire.
Loyalist targets have been overwhelmingly sectarian, stretching from petty sectarian abuse and harassment of Catholic families living in vulnerable areas and vandalism of Catholic owned property, businesses, chapels and schools to life threatening petrol, pipe and blast bombings, and gun attacks.
Writing in Ireland on Sunday, Robin Livingstone suggests sectarianism is "largely a Protestant phenomenon" and this is "the reality that dare not speak its name in the North." Of course, this suppression has not happened accidentally.
Historically, it has suited Britain's agenda to portray conflict in the North of Ireland as a problem between "two tribes." Within the media this translates into a notion of 'balance.' In practice, this means that reports of violence against Catholics must be reported only in conjunction with evidence of violence against Protestants.
Of course, sectarian violence against Protestants does occur and it is equally despicable and can only be utterly condemned but it does not occur so frequently or with such persistent ferocity. So in order to maintain "balance," the media must constantly minimise anti-Catholic violence and ignore its political role in maintaining a sectarian state.
In obscuring the nature of loyalist violence and the violence of a sectarian state, 'balance' is far from neutral. And it's a notion that loyalists often use to their own advantage. Loyalist violence is described as "retaliatory" rather than proactive. And when there is nothing to retaliate against, loyalists are very adept at creating it themselves.
Last year, the UDA were caught out after their members attacked a number of Protestant families' homes in a clumsy attempt to provide a spurious context for the UDA's campaign of sectarian violence.
Last week's petrol bomb attack on two Protestant pensioners living near the nationalist Short Strand has been vehemently denied by nationalists and republicans. A few days later a row of pensioners' bungalows on the edge of the nationalist estate were petrol bombed by the UDA.
Throughout all this, RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan has insisted that the loyalist ceasefires have remained intact and his evaluation has been presented as a matter of fact. Despite the reality of the RUC as a discredited pro unionist force with its own particular sectarian baggage and specific current political agenda, the media has often allowed the status of 'neutral observer' to be usurped by the RUC.
In the wake of last Thursday's clash between the RUC riot squad and nationalist residents in Ardoyne, the RUC Chief Constable "embarked on an early morning round of the radio and television studios to condemn what he described as a pre-planned attack on his officers by republicans." It had been a "co-ordinated attempt to injure and even murder" RUC officers, said Flanagan.
The RUC Chief Constable, reported the British Sunday Times, "like many of his senior officers, believes that republicans deliberately contrived the battle of Ardoyne in a bid to discredit the RUC on the eve of the Weston talks." As if after 50 years of unionist misrule and 30 years of conflict, the RUC had somehow avoided being discredited until last week's confrontation tipped the balance.
"Many believe the violence was aimed specifically at derailing the Good Friday Agreement talks, in which policing was at the hub," wrote Chris Ryder and Maurice Chittenden. Many might believe, but the journalists are not convinced and in the end their article isn't convincing either.
Nationalist Ireland, including republicans, has consistently supported the Good Friday Agreement. Unionists have consistently failed to support the implementation of the Agreement, undercut with an extreme oppositional element, even within the Ulster Unionist Party, publicly avowing its commitment to derailment. And even the Sunday Times can't avoid that particular truth.
"Jeffery Donaldson, the uncompromising anti-Agreement Unionist MP, told a Twelfth rally that the talks were a waste of time and he was only reluctantly returning to Weston to prevent an unacceptable deal being made."
Of course, as the Orangeman's daily, Belfast's Newsletter has cornered the market by avoiding the truth. "Orchestrated violence on our streets may have a political aim," ran Saturday's editorial.
"Sinister and evil forces were at work in Belfast on Thursday night intent on vehemently targeting and maligning the good name of the RUC," said the Newsletter.
"The republican mobs who wreaked havoc for up to ten hours in Ardoyne may have masqueraded in the guise of a protest against an Orange Twelfth feeder parade, but clearly the RUC was in their sights as part of the wider Sinn Féin and IRA agenda of wilfully discrediting the force."
Later, after film footage of an RUC vehicle mounting a kerb [curb] and driving at a group of Catholic children was passed onto the Police Ombudsman's office for investigation, the Newsletter refused to be deterred.
"During last week's riots, children were often placed at the front lines by the rioting hordes in a shameless attempt to make the RUC's job even more difficult."
When it comes to 'the good name of the RUC' no amount of evidence to the contrary is too great a challenge for journalists working for the Newsletter.
Meanwhile, the Sunday World's pitch relied on spotting local republicans. For example, there was Brendan "Bic" McFarland, the mastermind of the IRA Maze jail mass breakout in 1988.
Deprived of any evidence that republicans were engaging or encouraging any kind of riotous behaviour, the Sunday World relies in the 'shock horror' of an event that happened over a decade ago and an evaluation of 'Bic's' status as [an] IRA "mastermind."
"Also on the ground, using another walkie-talkie, was a former Sinn Féin councillor at Belfast City Hall," continued the Sunday World, now desperate to try and make it all seem like a sinister plot. And just what is 'veteran IRA man' Martin Meehan doing? The Sunday World had to come clean.
"It was Meehan who intervened with rioters to stop the whole of the Ardoyne district being turned into a petrol fuelled holocaust." And "he negotiated with the embattled RUC and the firemen to ensure safe passage." Now that is really sinister.
As a Derry-born nationalist who has seen a few riots in her day, Nell McCafferty of the Sunday Tribune refuses to stand behind RUC lines, both metaphorically and in actuality. She rejects the stereotypes favoured by the British press of "hordes" and "mobs" and stands with local residents facing a hostile and heavily armed RUC.
From this vantage point, she describes the spark that ignited the confrontation between local people and the RUC. "The RUC, for reasons that are entirely obscure, invaded the garden of a corner house on Ardoyne Road.
"It was 6:40 PM when the officers took possession of the garden and tried to enter the house. They pushed the woman of the house, and some relatives, back through her open front door. Batons and shields were employed against the woman and her family. The family resisted, pushing against the officers in return. Journalists then entered the garden, as did neighbours and more police."
McCafferty describes the RUC issuing a warning to disperse after a few "stones from Estoril began to land" followed immediately by the deployment of the water cannon and plastic bullets. "A two-man RT camera crew, standing in a doorway in Estoril Park at the end of a long, deserted front garden," recounts McCafferty, "were targeted, deliberately and precisely by the water cannon."
"The crew were drenched as the water cannon was aimed at them, now at the protestors, and now over the walls of back gardens," smashing down fencing and tossing garden furniture.
"From the massed ranks of the RUC came a roaring chant," records McCafferty, and then "within seconds the cops were upon us, some people were batoned." McCafferty described the crowd caught up in the confrontation as "inexperienced, disorganised... mostly teenagers on their first riotous outing."
Describing the RUC Chief Constable's claim that republicans had orchestrated the confrontation as "outlandish" she comments: "If the IRA did, the Pope is a Prod." Thursday's outcome, McCafferty concludes, was "about forcing nationalists off their own streets."
Articles may be reprinted with credit.
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Editor's note: At the risk of being chastised because I am treading in deep waters because of my admitted lack of expertise on British governmental affairs, allow me to state categorically that when George W. Bush stated that he supported the Good Friday Agreement, he did so because it is designed to help the elite. Moreover, George Mitchell, who flew to Belfast to "review" the Good Friday Agreement, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, that bastion of "people" who support the New World Order (NWO).