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Belfast’s Hegalian dialectic: it’s the same old two stories

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

BELFAST — "A Catholic riot is not the same as a Protestant riot," said my companion. We were talking in his home off of the Cliftonville Road in North Belfast. It is a stone’s throw from the scene of the recent Ardoyne riots, the most violent that Belfast had seen in 20 years.

As proof of his thesis, he cited the outbreak of violence in East Belfast the night before, when loyalists hurled petrol bombs at Catholic homes in the Short Strand district until the constables of the Royal Ulster Constabulary arrived and stopped them.

"In a Protestant riot the police just stand there and let them get on with it," he said. "Like last night. How many plastic bullets did they fire?"

I did not know. All I knew was that the UVF had fired 35 rounds in the direction of the police.

"I bet you none," he asserted. "But in the Ardoyne 30 people were injured by plastic bullets." What about the 113 police officers injured, he was asked? He said in reality, only 20 were hurt, the rest were just looking for an excuse to "go on the sick."

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That morning, Alban Maginness, former lord mayor of Belfast and SDLP assembly member for North Belfast, also claimed there is a disparity between how the RUC deals with Catholic riots and how it deals with those involving Protestants. He said the force only uses plastic bullets against Catholics. Forty-eight were fired in the Ardoyne riots and none in East Belfast.

A veteran RUC officer laughed when he heard this.

"He forgets about Portadown on the 11th night," he said. "We used plastic bullets then against Protestants."

And so the argument goes in Northern Ireland. The same old dialectic, but it is definitely not Hegel’s of Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. Here, it seems to stop at Thesis-Antithesis. Where is the Synthesis, meant to resolve the conflicting opposites? It is nowhere to be found. Certainly not when it comes to how each side perceives events. What about the facts? Actually, Northern Ireland challenges your confidence in human kind’s ability to establish the facts of any matter, and, sometimes, even in the existence of facts themselves.

Any event, such as a riot, is an incredibly complex thing. It is easy enough to select those facts which suit your interpretation of what happened and discard or ignore those which don’t. The RUC chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, claimed that the Ardoyne riots were organized by the IRA. Sinn Fein and Nationalists deny this, and accuse the RUC of provoking the riot, which they claim was spontaneous. Pipe bombs, blast bombs and petrol bombs were thrown at the police. A pipe bomb struck a constable on the neck but did not explode. "People do not spontaneously have on hand acid bombs, blast bombs and angle grinders to cut down lamp posts to block roads," Flanagan said. "This was orchestrated." But a nationalist columnist writing about the riot in the Dublin Sunday Tribune mentioned only in passing youths throwing petrol bombs at the police.

"If the IRA did organize the riot," the columnist said, "the pope is a Prod." But the column contained not a single reference to the other potentially deadly devices the rioters had at hand.

The remarkable thing about Belfast is that an alternative view of the world is sometimes no more than a street away. If you drive down the Antrim Road south from Ardoyne, you reach Carlisle Circus and, to its right, loyalist country. Passing from one to the other is truly like leaving one nation and entering another. In fact, the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is not so well demarcated by flags and emblems and colors as that between Nationalist and loyalist Belfast. Suddenly, instead of the pictures of dead hunger strikers, the walls are covered with pictures of loyalist gunmen such as Billy "King Rat" Wright. Red, white and blue replaces the tricolor. UDA, UFF, and UVF slogans are everywhere. "Simply the Best" signs — proclaiming the talents of the UDA’s "C" company, based on the Shankill — hang above some doorways. Slogans defend Johnny Adair, the UDA leader imprisoned last September after being accused of inciting trouble between the UDA and UVF, as well as organizing a campaign of violence against Catholics. "His only crime is loyalty," they proclaim.

Not according to the Ardoyne. One of the last Nationalist slogans you see before entering loyalist country proclaims: "Johnny Adair: his only crime — he bleeped Gina." Gina is Johnny’s wife, a tough, short-haired bleached blonde who last year donned a paramilitary mask to be pictured firing off an AK-47 at a bonfire.

We were in the heart of the Shankill estate

"This is UDA territory. That’s where Adair lives," said Ronnie (not his real name), pointing to a house. Ronnie is a Protestant friend from the Shankill who is my guide for the afternoon.

I suggested we stop in for a cup of tea. He declined. As a teenager he was part of the Adair gang for a while before seeing the error of his ways and going on to make a new life for himself. He has no intention of renewing the acquaintance, not even at a social level. We pass a rather gothic mural of the UFF (the UDA’s hit squads) portrayed as a masked skeleton with a scythe, loping menacingly through a graveyard. On one of the headstones is the name "Sean Kelly" — the IRA man convicted of the Shankill Road bombing which killed 10 people in 1993. Kelly is still very much alive.

Tourists don’t come in here, Ronnie observed.

One thing that has disappeared since I was last here was what was known in the area as Johnny Adair’s drug house. It was an abandoned apartment where young UDA men would sell everything from hash to cocaine and even heroin, quite openly. After a TV crew recorded the deals being done on daily basis, an RUC order led to it being demolished.

We drove north, into the Highfield estate at the top of the Ballygomartin Road, where I once lived. UDA flags hang from nearly every house. The music from an ice-cream van tinkled in the background. A summer breeze blew down from the sunny, green slopes of the Divis Mountain, into which the estate runs. Ronnie waved at a man cleaning his car.

"He was the one taught me how to strip a 9-mil.," he said, bringing me back to reality.

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