By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
BELFAST, Sept. 13 -- For three nights Protestant rioters trashed David Hamilton's neighborhood in east Belfast, tossing firebombs and rocks, hijacking and burning cars and ripping down streetlights in the city's worst violence in years.
Looking at the shattered battlefield of his street on Tuesday, Hamilton, 37, also a Protestant, said he would have been out there too if he were a little younger and didn't have four children. "The Protestant people are persecuted and want to stick up for themselves, but nobody seems to be listening," he said. "The only way to be heard is the way the Catholics do it -- with violence."
According to a variety of Protestants interviewed here, the riots over the past few days were an expression of rage and frustration among members of the Protestant working class, who feel they are being left behind economically and politically in the aftermath of the three-decade sectarian war known as "the Troubles."
When the Irish Republican Army this summer declared an end to its armed struggle, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the historic step. His government immediately began withdrawing troops and dismantling military posts in the province.
But furious Protestants said they were being betrayed. Their rage was compounded by the release of a convicted IRA bomber, Sean Kelly, the night before the IRA declaration in July. Protestants saw it as a reward from Blair for disarmament.
Protestants interviewed here said the peace process and the landmark 1998 Good Friday power-sharing accords have disproportionately benefited Catholics.
Since the accords, fading political violence and a strong British economy have brought improvements to once-gray Belfast, reflected in a beautifully redeveloped waterfront and construction cranes towering over new downtown offices and shops. But Protestant leaders say unemployment is still 70 percent in some Protestant areas, housing conditions have not improved and educational achievement among the poor remains abysmal. They contend poor Catholics have fared better -- a result, they say, of the government's one-sided largess to secure the end of IRA violence.
"They threatened the government, they blew up Parliament, they blew up bombs in London," said Florence Rae, 51, carrying groceries past the burned-out remains of two cars near her house on Albert Bridge Road. "It's not the Protestant people who are blowing up England. But Tony Blair doesn't want to know about the Protestant people, and he is giving the IRA everything it wants."
Those claims are denied by British officials, as well as by Northern Irish Catholic leaders who say discrimination and unemployment are still serious problems in their communities. Analysts in Belfast say that conditions are as bad or worse in Catholic areas, and that Protestant complaints of mistreatment by the government are unfounded.
"Quite clearly there are issues, but the problem comes when you say, 'It's because I'm a Protestant,' " said Peter Shirlow, a senior lecturer at the University of Ulster, a Protestant who said he grew up in a working-class neighborhood. He said many Protestant job losses were the result of heavy industry moving out of Belfast -- global economics rather than government discrimination. Poor educational achievement among Protestants, he said, often stemmed from a belief in working-class areas that higher education was not important because "real men work in hard jobs."
"I've been a lecturer here for 14 years, and in that time I've had one student from the Shankill Road," Shirlow said, referring to the major Protestant thoroughfare in west Belfast, where rioting has taken place this week. At least 60 police officers and 10 civilians were injured.
The struggle in Northern Ireland has divided the largely Catholic republican movement, which wants the province united with the Republic of Ireland and is symbolized by the IRA, against Protestant loyalists, who want it to remain part of Britain. While world attention usually focuses on the IRA, the province also has two main loyalist militias: the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA). Both remain a powerful presence on the streets; in the past two months, four men have been killed in violence among loyalist paramilitary groups.
Protestant leaders affiliated with those groups said many Protestants felt ignored and disrespected by the government.
"We are losing; they are feeling the gain and we are feeling the pain -- that's the perception," said David Ervine, head of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF.
Many commentators here have accused those extremist groups of orchestrating the recent riots to pressure the government. Mitchell Reiss, the U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, and others have criticized loyalist leaders for failing to control the rioting and for not channeling the frustration better in their communities.
Ervine and Tommy Kirkham of the Ulster Political Research Group, which is linked to the UDA, said the paramilitary organizations played little or no role in directing the riots, although they said individual members were involved. They said the riots resulted from spontaneous popular anger, touched off on Saturday when police prohibited the Orange Order, the province's largest and vociferously anti-Catholic group, from parading in a Catholic area.
[On Wednesday, the British secretary for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, declared that the UVF had abandoned its 11-year-old cease-fire and was again officially an enemy of the peace, the Associated Press reported.]
For decades, Belfast's mighty shipyards, mills and other heavy industries discriminated against Catholics, who are still the minority in Northern Ireland. Young Protestant men, however, had easy access to jobs and apprenticeships in trades such as plumbing and electrical work. But as the global economy sent heavy industry to countries with lower wages, steady sources of employment dried up. Protestants in the riot-struck areas complain that the government has not stepped in with training programs or other help.
Hamilton, who has a crew cut and a linebacker's build, worked as a painter for several years at Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard. But when it stopped building ships in 2003, Hamilton was left to support his family on his wages as a nightclub bouncer.
"I want to do something else, but there's nothing else to do," he said, standing amid the shattered glass on his road. "There's nothing for our kids to do. All we want is a fair deal."