Growing up in South Belfast’s Sandy Row, a loyalist epicentre where Ulster murals and physical history of the troubles are still recognised and commemorated, I know the street is more than its reputation. The same goes for the Shankill, a much forgotten and slum-like area whose only charm comes from its people – ironic given the circumstances. My generation is the first to be truly unaffected by Northern Ireland’s grim history and with that, comes a sense of innocence that is sadly all too quickly being extinguished by the experiences of those before us.
Until now Northern Ireland’s youth of today has exclaimed “we do not care what side you’re on”. The “us v them” narrative is lost on us, as we want to live peacefully and without the terrors our families before us dealt with. Yet, what we are currently seeing come out of Belfast’s city centre is sad proof that we haven’t outlived the damage of the troubles, with both Sandy Row and the Shankill at the centre of the violence, we’ve taken a huge step backwards.
Despite the ever-prevalent tensions and excuses the country finds to attack one another, Belfast reached boiling point when Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill appeared to be above the law. O’Neill was able to mourn at prominent IRA leader Bobby Storey’s funeral with more than one hundred in attendance and faced zero repercussions which, during a pandemic, is bewildering. Rules have been set in place for months. Many of us have had to say farewell to loved ones through a glass screen or over the telephone, yet the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have decided no action will be taken at a mass gathering, igniting the flames of the riots we’re seeing today.
The PSNI has always been on a rocky road with its citizens, and with the police’s current reputation worldwide, the service will not do itself any favours by playing favourites. Pinning the blame entirely on Michelle O’Neil and the PSNI is exactly the one-sided biased reporting that keeps Belfast in the dark ages. Arlene Foster, First Minister and rival leader of the DUP party, took to Twitter to point-score with voters, condemning the riots but then placing blame on Sinn Fein. Do I believe there should be repercussions for the mass attendance of an IRA funeral? Absolutely. But to give any inkling of an excuse for the shocking scenes we’ve seen in recent days is dangerous. People are comparing the scenes to the troubles and, once again, both political parties are safe and sound while the youth are fighting against each other.
The only people who will be negatively affected by these riots are the families and young children who live in these areas. Sixty-six-year-old retired midwife Harriett Hinds, a current resident of the Sandy Row area, spoke out against the violence:
“The Troubles are going to start up again. They’re out there and they don’t even know what they’re fighting for just like back then. It’s an absolute bloody disgrace. Kids are prettified to even go out nowadays.
“You think you’re getting somewhere then someone just says one thing and your back trying to blow each other up. Even back in my day people didn’t want violence and it was always a handful of people ruining it for everyone.” The Shankill and Sandy Row communities are once again being painted as violent thugs because of the actions of a few. Like every community, there are extremists, and it is those extremists taking centre stage at these riots. They don’t represent the overwhelming amount of us who want things to get better and for the fighting to stop.
I’ve seen that most of the people involved in these riots are young men, easily below 25 and probably still in their teens. What is overwhelmingly sad about this, however, is that these men have never dealt with the troubles or attacks from either Unionist or Republican terrorist groups, yet they are becoming pawns for a historical conflict. Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are playing tit-for-tat on social media, as streets are burning up and tensions are again rising with whispers of terrorists’ threats on the horizon.
Most of my generation does not want this. The only saving grace of these riots has been the overwhelming condemnation on social media towards everyone involved, showing they do not speak for the majority. There is no reason anyone should be on the streets fighting a war their fathers and grandfathers started, let alone bring it to the doorsteps of their own children.
As a resident, I speak for the majority when I say we denounce all of the violent thugs and dangerous acts that are coming from the city. We do not want to see windows being smashed, bombs being hurled and buses in such a state smoke is seen from miles away. These rioters are damaging not only their community, but our community in deluded self-riotous violence that has nothing to do with them.
There’s no deeper intellectual meaning behind these riots, other than Northern Ireland simply has not learnt from its past. Why is the reaction to a non-arrest to throw petrol bombs along Sandy Row? Why is the reaction a point-scoring tweet against Sinn Fein? In my opinion, those in attendance of Bobby Storey’s funeral should absolutely be legal-action for gathering during a pandemic and every single person involved in these riots should be locked away for the safety of others. Unless both parties are held accountable and stop this child-like blame game, Northern Ireland will stay poisoned by its history.