Unionist politicians have attempted to use the violence in recent days as part of a bid to extract concessions from the British government ahead of the completion of IRA decommissioning.
A DUP blueprint, published in a Sunday newspaper last weekend, shows that the party is willing to exploit the loyalist turmoil in order to win back some political ground.
Citing the violence as a unionist “cry of desperation,” Ian Paisley’s party hopes it will force the British government to reconsider its recent handling of the process.
Among the DUP’s demands are: a severance package for the soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment who are to be taken out of action over the next two years coupled with plans to keep two battalions in the North, the replacement of the Parades Commission, a package of investment in loyalist areas, more unionists to be appointed to the Equality Commission, and increased funding for Ulster Scots organizations.
All of the above are predicated on the assumption that General John De Chastelain is poised in the coming days to announce that IRA decommissioning has been finished.
The timing of the DUP’s demands shows that the party, despite its long-held claim to be opposed to political violence, is nevertheless ready to use events on the ground to its own advantage.
Far from being a spontaneous uprising against the PSNI and British army by Belfast loyalists, last week’s rioting was well flagged in advance.
Unionists had implied that loyalists would respond in anger were the Parades Commission to hold to its decision to reroute an Orange march away from the nationalist Springfield Road. Paisley warned that the decision could be the “spark” to light a fire that might never be put out.
As UVF men emerged on to the streets with automatic machine-guns, hordes of loyalists, well stocked with petrol bombs and blast devices, engaged in lengthy running battles with police. Their violence was well planned.
The response of the PSNI and British army alarmed as many loyalists as it surprised nationalists.
It no doubt will have dawned, both on those who maintain policing in the North has not changed one jot and those who believe the PSNI to still be “their” police force, that times are a changing.
Long gone are the days when Northern policemen either stood by, (or indeed ably assisted), gangs of loyalists intent on rowing back the political tide of change.
PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde was as unflinching in his contention that the Orange Order was responsible for the violence as his officers were when it came to facing down the loyalist crowds.
Whether the British government is prepared to show the same fortitude in the coming days remains to be seen.
The DUP was shaken by the speed with which the British government responded to the IRA’s July statement declaring its armed struggle to be at an end.
Long-held agreements, stemming back to the Weston Park negotiations some years ago, were promptly put into action with British army engineers dismantling spy-posts in South Armagh and the RIR’s home battalions being dismissed by way of press release.
As Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern await the news from De Chastelain that the IRA has put its arsenal to bed, the DUP fears that it, once again, will be pushed to the sidelines.
It has had some success in the past week. Northern Secretary Peter Hain has pledged to address unionist concerns. He will today deliver a speech in Belfast in which he is expected to confront some of the issues unionist leaders have raised.
Exactly how he plans to placate the DUP, the Ulster Unionists, the Orange Order the UVF and the UDA is unclear. No unionist politician has been able to explain precisely what caused the violence surrounding the banned Orange march.
Bundled up in their analysis are a whole manner of things — this disbandment of the RIR, the occasional rerouting of Orange marches, deprivation in loyalist working-class areas and fears of a “sell-out.”
Even were the DUP to make headway on these issues, and its prospects would appear slim, it is uncertain whether loyalist violence would subside.
The plan to dismantle the home battalions of the RIR was made a long time ago. The British army wants to downsize its Cold War operations and shed those battalions it regards as obsolete.
Given that the primary role of the RIR (formerly the UDR) was to provide extra muscle with which to counter nationalist subversion, it is of little surprise that the British army now believes it to be surplus to requirements.
The replacing of the Parades Commission with a body that would start with the assumption that there is an overriding right to march is unlikely.
A tiny majority of marches are rerouted in the North every year — most of which are done with very good reason. The loyal institutions are already largely able to march where and when they please.
The most satisfactory way to deal with the marching issue would seen to be that adopted in Derry where residents’ groups and marchers are encouraged to reach accommodation through mediation.
The pumping of money into loyalist areas is also problematic. Despite claims that Northern Protestants live in some of the most impoverished areas of Western Europe, Catholics are still more likely to suffer from consistent poverty and unemployment in the North.
Critics have also pointed out that in pouring more money into loyalist working class areas the British government would be unable to control where it ends up. It has been suggested that the biggest winners would be the loyalist paramilitaries.
As for putting unionist minds at ease on the constitutional matter, that responsibility lies mainly with the two main unionist parties.