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Editorial: Balkan Belfast

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It would be tempting to believe that some in authority in Northern Ireland’s capital city might see advantage in the event of the nationalist and Catholic Short Strand area ceasing to exist in its current form.

Night and day demographic transformations have take place before in Belfast and continue to occur. The Balkanization of Belfast has been under way for years and indeed has spread well beyond the city’s reaches.

It would be tempting indeed to see the continued existence of a nationalist enclave in this part of Belfast as a nuisance, a provocation to neighboring loyalist and Protestant residents, a never-ending drain on security budgets and manpower.

It would be tempting to completely give up on the place and give in to those forces who would wipe it clean of all apparent Irishness.

For the sake of a forced and artificial conformity, it would be tempting indeed. But it would also be wrong.

It would be wrong because a city of mere territories promises little to its future inhabitants. And it stunts the lives of those who presently call it home.

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For years now the policy in Belfast has been to build walls, so-called peace walls, between communities that proclaim and act out hostilities toward one another.

Such is the case with the Catholic Short Strand and its almost next door, over-the-wall Protestant streets.

The walls, however, have served a presumably unintended function: They provide cover with which to launch attacks on those who, in a normal society, would be your friends and neighbors.

It would be risky indeed to tear down the wall separating the people living in this especially troubled corner of Belfast. The absence of a wall would potentially expose entire streets to sudden, devastating assault.

At the same time, the presence of the wall is an admission to the broader world that the problems of the area are virtually insoluble. And if that be true, perhaps it’s time for even more and higher structures.

That’s a thoroughly disturbing thought.

The short-term alternative to a solid structure is, of course, the security forces, police and army.

There have been more than a few recent disturbing allegations leveled at the Police Service of Northern Ireland in particular with regard to the force’s handling of the daily tensions and disturbances in various parts of Belfast, not least the Short Strand.

Lately, there have been serious allegations made of police cutting hoses put in place by Short Strand nationalists attempting to protect their homes from petrol bomb attacks launched from the other side of the wall.

The accusing finger can be pointed quickly in the North and a healthy skepticism is frequently desirable. But if there is any basis at all for such charges, they should be the subject of an immediate and impartial investigation.

There has been a nagging tendency in recent weeks for the police to point the finger themselves, more often than not at the nationalists in the area.

Republicans are certainly expert at orchestrating street violence, but it’s not entirely clear what republicans might expect to achieve by, allegedly, so often provoking the majority population in this tinderbox corner of Belfast.

Either way, a vacuum of expectation has now developed in Short Strand, a place that is crying out for the calming and controlling influence of neutral and apolitical law enforcement.

Sadly, and ominously, the widespread and growing suspicion is that there is little or no such thing available or to be had.

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