By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — Five loyalists were hit by republican gunfire and more than 100 families evacuated from their homes on both sides of the peace line in East Belfast in a sustained and serious outburst of sectarian rioting on Monday. One of those wounded was described as a social worker, and two were 15-year-old boys.
One man was hit in the chest and a second in the foot by bullets fired from the nationalist side of the peace line. Local sources said the mainstream IRA was responsible.
Gunmen on the loyalist side then opened up on police, wounding one officer in the leg. The security forces claim they hit one of the gunmen in return fire. Nineteen officers were injured in the riots, some of the worst the area has seen in decades.
The shootings came after a fourth night of serious rioting in the Short Strand/Newtownards Road area after Catholic homes were burned and smashed by loyalist mobs and beleaguered Protestant families also moved out of their houses. The homes of two Protestant families were set ablaze.
The violence escalated on Monday when as many as an estimated 1,000 people were involved in hand-to-hand fighting in the area, ending only when the police and British Army moved in to separate the sides.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The Short Strand is the only Catholic enclave on the east shore of the River Lagan. The rest of East Belfast is predominantly Protestant with a few mixed, middle-class areas on its outskirts.
The area has been subjected to repeated loyalist attack over the last 30 years. Many people date the emergence of the Provisional IRA as a serious force to a gun battle waged in defense of the local parish church, St. Matthew’s, in June 1970. During this clash, almost exactly 32 years ago, two loyalists were shot dead and a member of the Provisional IRA died later in hospital from his wounds. The incident has become a part of republican folklore, enabling the Provisionals to credibly claim their role as defenders of local Catholics. It saw a surge in their support.
As usual with Belfast riots, one side blames the other for starting it. Nationalists are voicing several theories why the loyalist onslaught recommenced this week. One is that the UDA and UVF are seeking dominance in the area. Another is that loyalists want to precipitate a political crisis by provoking IRA action. A third is that loyalists want to provoke the IRA into breaching its cease-fire, with the hope of persuading local Alliance Party councilor David Alderdice to revoke a decision to support Sinn Fein’s bid to get Alex Maskey elected lord mayor of Belfast on Wednesday.
On Monday, on the Catholic side of the peace line, a row of pensioners’ bungalows lay empty, their roofs and windows smashed, scorch marks on the brickwork, evidence of petrol bombs exploding.
Area on alert
The air hung heavy with the smell of chemicals, gasoline and other flammables, thrown over the peace line from the loyalist side. Smashed milk and soda bottles littered the streets.
The area’s nationalist residents were mounting an organized defense of the area. Men with walkie-talkies communicated around the clock to alert others to the presence of loyalists. Others carried iron bars and baseball bats.
Along one street, fire and garden hoses, bowls of water, fire extinguishers and ladders lay at the ready in the event of another attempt to burn Catholic homes.
On the other side of the peace line, loyalist pensioners had also borne the brunt of the retaliation from nationalists. David Ervine, the Progressive Unionist Party leader, claimed that Sinn Fein was deliberately orchestrating the violence to force the police to take hard-line measures.
This would then provide propaganda material for republicans, he said, to persuade others that they should not support or join the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.
This has been dismissed by Sinn Fein spokesman Joe O’Donnell, who said Catholics had come under sustained attack and had used violence only to defend themselves and their areas.
He appealed for political and church leaders to kick start talks. “I don’t care what auspices they do it under — we need talks now,” he said. “This area has been under siege for three weeks and can’t take anymore.”
He said the area “looks like Beirut” and that the attacks were “like 1969 all over again. We stood and watched 40 or 50 semi-uniformed loyalists march down and line up on the Albertbridge Road.”
“This area is completely surrounded by a wall and 70,000 unionists and yet we are accused of targeting them,” he said, blaming the attacks on the UVF. “The Short Strand is a small nationalist community surrounded on all sides.
“A community like ours would be mad to try to start something when we are so heavily outnumbered. But that is the way it is being portrayed in the media. I have no doubt that the UVF is trying to open up a sectarian interface for its own ends.”
Northern Ireland Office minister Jane Kennedy said she was “dismayed” by the latest violence. ” It is only a question of time before somebody is killed,” she said.
Colin Cramphorn, the acting chief constable, warned that Northern Ireland is heading for “a fresh nightmare” and appealed to people to move back from “the abyss.”
Speaking at police headquarters in Belfast on Monday, Cramphorn said: “We are only just at the beginning of the summer season and yet we have seen truly disturbing incidents of public disorder during the weekend. . . . They need to stop and realize that the entire community on the island of Ireland and potentially beyond in Great Britain will pay a very heavy price if they walk off that abyss.”
Cramphorn also said that because the situation across Belfast had been deteriorating for a number of weeks, about 250 troops — drafted back into the province last month for the Queen’s Jubilee — had been retained.