Belfast, Northern Ireland, has once again been bloodied by protest. This time, however, it is Protestants that have clashed with British forces. This outbreak of violence poses a new challenge to the embattled peace process in Northern Ireland: Protestants make up the majority in the province, and they are angry and frustrated that the peace process seems to be marginalizing and ignoring them. Their fears must be quelled if Northern Ireland is to know real peace.
While the Irish Republican Army has long served as the face of sectarian anger in Northern Ireland, an equally powerful — and bloody — Protestant counter-current has also existed in the province. Various paramilitary groups have taken up arms “to defend the rights” of the Protestant majority, the most famous being the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
The paramilitaries declared a ceasefire in 1994, and have pledged to support the 1998 Good Friday peace process. Although there had been numerous breaches, British authorities concluded that the ceasefires were being maintained for the most part and stayed their hand, thus allowing the peace process to move forward. British patience ran out last week.
Several days of violence in Belfast forced the British hand. Protestant hardliners threw firebombs at police stations, blocked key roads in Belfast, attacked passing cars with stones, and rioted for three days. Lead-filled balloons and Molotov cocktails were seized. According to British authorities, the paramilitary groups used machine guns and grenades in attacks that wounded more than 80 police officers and several school children when their bus was attacked. In response, Mr. Peter Hain, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, last week declared that his government no longer recognized the UVF ceasefire. That would allow authorities to rearrest paramilitary members released under amnesty in the peace deal as well as go on the offensive against these groups.
The ostensible cause of the violence was British authorities’ refusal to give a permit to the Orange Order, the province’s major Protestant brotherhood, to carry out its annual parade along the dividing line between Protestant and Catholic communities in Belfast. The event takes tensions to the boiling point as both sides taunt each other. The parade route has been changed since 1998, when Catholic militants blocked the march.
While the Orange Order parade may have been the trigger for the clashes, there are other, deep-rooted causes. The most important of them is the growing alienation and anger that Protestants feel as the peace process moves forward.
Long accustomed to being in the majority, Protestants are disoriented by the prospect of sharing power — even those who are committed to peace. The British government’s readiness to accept the IRA’s declaration last summer that it was giving up armed conflict compounded the sense of unease. Skepticism and doubt prevail in Protestant communities. In response to the IRA pledge, the British have started to pull back their security forces, aggravating Protestant concerns.
The readiness to credit the IRA reversal — and accommodate the Catholic community — has fed the belief among Protestants that violence pays dividends. At the core, though, the problem is an increasingly frustrated Protestant community that fears it is being marginalized and ignored as London tries to disengage from Northern Ireland. To some extent, this explains the silence of the Protestant leadership in Northern Ireland: None has condemned the violence.
While alienation is the real problem, it would be a mistake to conclude that all Protestants are driven by this feeling. Paramilitaries — on both sides — are also involved in drug running, cigarette smuggling, and other forms of crime. The peace process, which would require all paramilitary organizations to disarm, appears poised to deprive them of power.
A response to this latest crisis must proceed on two levels: Individuals who organize the violence must be arrested, and criminal activity must be acknowledged for what it is — crime — and dealt with as such. Protestant leaders must denounce this violence and help to stop it. No responsible leader can remain silent when individuals take the law into their own hands.
At the same time, British authorities must do more to acknowledge the depth of Protestant anger, frustration and fear. For years, the Catholics have been viewed as the aggrieved party in the peace process and enjoyed international sympathy, even as their paramilitaries were condemned. Those accumulated grievances cannot be ignored and they cannot be used as an excuse to perpetrate newer injustices against Northern Ireland’s Protestants. Progress will be a delicate balancing act. It will be difficult, it will be manipulated, but it can be achieved.
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