A few of the boys and men asked about their alleged involvement in last week’s street violence in Northern Ireland spoke as if struggling to remember troubled dreams. A person was holding a plastic off-licence bag. They had already had a lot of drinks and this looked like more, but then the bag contained petrol bombs. Someone for reasons unknown to himself made the journey from mid Ulster to Belfast. He found himself in the middle of a riot. Another was passing the end of a street and saw boys attacking the police. A child he knew was disappearing down an alley. He followed but then he was at other riots in other parts of the city.
Watching clips of the many videos taken of the disturbances had a similar, dislocated, nightmarish feel. A fleet of white police Land Rovers speed down to block a road. A man’s voice roars: “Party time!” A cheering crowd surges forward, missiles flying. A doubledecker bus lurches along a city street, a ball of fire where the driver should be. The gate across the peaceline, with “No peace is bad, no war is good” painted across it, is locked. Hooded boys slosh petrol over it, set it alight and finally wrench the gate open to reveal, facing them from the other side, their mirror image, hooded boys.
But for some people, what happened was brutally clear. A press photographer was violently set upon from behind by men who called him a “fenian cunt” and told him to go back to his own area. In Carrickfergus, masked men smashed the windows of certain houses and Catholic families hastily prepared to flee. It was, in the words of a local Alliance party politician, “raw, naked sectarianism”. About 70 police officers were injured. Bus drivers stood in solidarity with their shaken colleague outside Belfast’s City Hall, remembering other bus drivers, killed during the Troubles.
All of these people might have been ghosts, figures summoned up from history, from the riots that have been going on here since the end of the 18th century, many of them in the same areas – places stuck in poverty. These particular events took place in the week of the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement, with its fine commitments to peace, reconciliation and an end to the use of violence for political ends. It is two years since dissident republicans whipped up a riot against the police in Derry, and someone shot dead the young writer Lyra McKee.
The historian of northern riots, the late Andrew Boyd, wrote in his 1969 book Holy War in Belfast, about the “fetishes that pass for politics” in a state founded on the maintenance of sectarian division. Boyd planned his book to end in 1886 but then “history began to repeat itself” in the 1960s. “Ian Paisley is but a reincarnation of Hugh Hanna,” he wrote. In the 19th century, Hanna roared in opposition to Home Rule that “our safety … lies in the union … with our kith and kin across the narrow seas”. In 1998 Paisley warned the authorities to allow the anti-agreement Orange Order march in Drumcree to go ahead. Otherwise, he said, “anyone with any imagination knows what is going to happen”. What happened was, loyalist paramilitaries set fire to Chrissie Quinn’s house in Carnany, burning to death three of her four small sons. Other Catholic families were forced out.
The republicans who taught a new generation of Catholic boys how to make and throw petrol bombs in Derry, and the loyalists who did the same for Protestant boys in Belfast, Coleraine and Carrickfergus, have in common a hatred of the 1998 peace deal. Loyalists claim it began a process of “appeasement” that will end with the destruction of Northern Ireland. They use archaic language, calling up the “steadfast sons of Ulster”. They speak of the “jackboot” of Europe and call the Irish government Nazis.
The problem right now is that all of unionism has turned dissident. Its three main parties have joined forces to bring the British government to court, citing breaches of the 1800 Act of Union and the Good Friday agreement (which two of those three parties opposed). The DUP pulled out of the north-south arrangements that are a mainstay of the agreement. All of the leaders demanded that the chief constable resign over his handling of a republican funeral. DUP MP Sammy Wilson declared “guerrilla warfare” over the protocol that has created a trade border in the Irish Sea. This mechanism by which the EU and the UK resolved Brexit became inevitable after the DUP rejected every other proposed deal. It held out for a hard border across Ireland, but this was incompatible with the GFA, for which 71% of people in Northern Ireland voted in favour in 1998, while 56% of them voted to remain in the EU in 2016.
The inconsistency extends to the attitude to the government. Unionists insist there must be no regulatory diversion between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, yet the first minister and DUP leader, Arlene Foster, told the secretary of state to “back off” when he insisted British law must be implemented to allow abortions for women in Northern Ireland. Feminists are angry about this. Anti-poverty activists working in neglected communities are angry too. So are Irish language campaigners promised legislation that has not been delivered. None of these people have rioted.
The IRA has gone. What unionism fears now is democracy. The dread is existential. The Good Friday agreement enables the secretary of state to initiate a border poll. Time to play the Orange card, the one that unites Protestants in a paranoid huddle. In February, Foster met the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an all-male organisation hardly anyone had heard of which claims to represent working-class unionism, including paramilitary organisations. Its chairperson David Campbell told BBC Radio Ulster: “If it comes to the bit where we have to fight to maintain our freedoms within the United Kingdom then so be it.”
In 2005, after loyalist riots in Belfast, Ian Paisley said: “You’re not going to ballyrag me and say I’m responsible.” The then leader of the UUP, Reg Empey, said: “There’s no use picking on me.” Unionist leaders condemned last week’s violence, as did the LCC. But it is not enough. They need to banish old ghosts full of grievance and rage. If young people had hopes and ambitions, they would not be out fighting with shadows.
• Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist