The Belfast riots: Why they happened

Posted on 16 October 2012

When riots swept urban Britain in the summer of 2011, there was a wilful establishment denial of any connection to a society scarred by the toxic combination of the celebration of vulgar materialism and the denial of its fruits to an increasing swathe of the marginalised. The very suggestion, it was implied, defused the moral responsibility of individual rioters for their actions, writes Dr Robin Wilson.

Riots are a very rare phenomenon in democratic societies: far from reflecting some diffuse and generalised collapse of social order, they are specific products of the extreme stretching of the social fabric. Think Brixton in 1981, the poll tax riots in 1990, and otherwise in western Europe only the French banlieues in 2005 and Athens since the devastating austerity programme.

So it is a good idea to distinguish social science from moral judgments. It is essential if one is to appreciate the cocktail of economic, social, cultural and political factors behind what is now evidently a renewed malaise in Northern Ireland - where riots and, worse, paramilitary activity, are once more a reality.

Belfast riots, Northern Ireland

‘Ancient hatreds’ has always been the residual substitute for an explanation whenever trouble in the region has flared – though that can’t simultaneously be a good reason for the periods of relative peace. It is as if ‘culture’ were an unchanging, taken-for-granted entity, a disengaged flywheel in timeless motion.

What, then, has really spurred the riots we have seen in Belfast over the summer?

First, the economy. The weakening and greater uncertainty of demand as private balance sheets are deleveraged and, perversely, public spending has been slashed, which has hit the most peripheral UK regions hardest. The maps of victimisation in Northern Ireland in recent decades and the neighbourhoods of maximum urban disadvantage always overlapped to a remarkable degree, so it is no surprise that north Belfast is once more in that awful ‘troubles’ cliché, the ‘cockpit of violence’.

Secondly, the society. As the labour market has seized up, young people in particular have found hopes dashed and opportunities blocked. Close to one in four youngsters is unemployed, many more are economically inactive and in the north of the city many more still are jobless in one way or another. In an area where there are now nearly 100 ‘peace walls’ and other physical barriers between working-class neighbourhoods of different religious composition, it is hardly likely that the labour market will even begin to clear.

Thirdly, the cultural arena. ‘Culture’ isn’t a thing (as multi-culturalism assumes): it’s a contested space. That gets physical in north Belfast as socialisation into a conservative, look-after-yourself masculinity colludes with religious division – and, inevitably, communal parades have proved the flashpoint in every case this summer, as mainly young men have clashed with each other and/or the police. The official multi-culturalism exported to Northern Ireland in the last two decades, under the banner of ‘parity of esteem’ for counterposed identities, has given credence to this the flaunting of antagonism.

Last, but not least, the politics. It is now evident – indeed, it should have been apparent all the time – that the entrenchment of those ethnic identities into constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland has set its sectarian divide in aspic. An assembly in which soi-disant ‘unionists’ and ‘nationalists’ – every one of whom is actually Protestant and Catholic respectively – exercise mutual vetoes and fail to bring to account an all-in executive characterised by lowest-common-denominator inertia is fast becoming an irrelevance. With the first minister, Peter Robinson, having joined ‘unionist’ condemnations of the impartial rulings of the statutory Parades Commission, he was in no position to offer the civic leadership clerics and police officers demanded after the eruption on the streets.

And, now, the moral? Any discussion of the future of the UK as a multinational as well as multi-ethnic entity has to embed the identities which are the object of attention in an understanding of their social determinations. And it has to recognise the need for an impartial – not parcelled out – state, which can credibly steer intercultural dialogue in the public square, so that does not turn out to be a dialogue of the deaf.

Robin Wilson is an independent researcher based in Belfast. He is an adviser to the Council of Europe on intercultural dialogue.