Politics

Opinion: I Grew Up In Belfast. These Rioters On Our Streets Speak For No One

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 certain circumstances. 

My generation is the first to be truly unaffected by Northern Ireland’s grim history, and with that comes a sense of innocence which is sadly all too quickly extinguished by the experiences of those before us. The most prominent exclamation from Northern Ireland’s youth of today is “we do not care what side you’re on”. The ‘us v them’ narrative of the past is lost on us; instead 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 the people are far from outgrowing the damage of The Troubles. And with both Sandy Row and the Shankill at the centre of the violence, we’re once again taking a huge step back.

Despite the ever-prevalent tensions and excuses the country finds to attack one another, Belfast reached boiling point when Sinn Fein politician Michelle O’Neill proved she was above the law. Mourning prominent IRA leader Bobby Storey’s funeral alongside over one hundred others, during a pandemic, and facing zero repercussions, 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 phone, and yet the PSNI decided no arrests would be made at a mass gathering, igniting the flames of the riots we’re seeing this week. The PSNI has always had a rocky road with the citizens they’re meant to protect, and with the police’s current reputation worldwide, they’re not doing themselves any favours by playing favourites. 

In the end, the only people that will be negatively affected by these riots are the families and young children that live in these areas.

But to pin the blame entirely on O’Neill and the PSNI is exactly the one-sided and biased thinking that has kept Belfast in the dark ages. Arlene Foster, the first minister and rival leader of the DUP, took to Twitter to point-score with voters, condemning the riots but then placing the blame entirely on Sinn Fein. 

Do I believe there should be repercussions for the mass attendance of an IRA funeral? Absolutely. But to act like loyalists are not entirely responsible for the shocking scenes coming from the city is a dangerous approach to pushing your one-sided political agenda. Things should not have risen to such a height people are comparing the scenes to The Troubles and yet, once again, both political parties are safe and sound while the young fight against each other on the streets.

In the end, the only people that will be negatively affected by these riots are the families and young children that live in these areas. The Shankill and Sandy Row communities, once again, are 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 that want things to get better and for the fighting to stop. 

It is interesting to see most of the people involved in these riots are young men, easily below 25 and probably some 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 here they are being used as pawns on their behalf with history repeating itself. Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill can play tit for tat on social media whilst streets are burning up and tensions are again rising with whispers of terrorists’ threats on the horizon. 

Unless both parties are held accountable and stop this child-like blame game, Northern Ireland will remain poisoned by its history.

Let’s be clear: my generation does not want this. The only saving grace of these riots has been the overwhelming condemnation on social media, proving these do not speak for the majority. There is no reason anyone should be on the streets fighting a war their fathers and grandfather started, let alone bring it to the doorsteps of their own children.

As a resident of these areas, I can safely say that 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 really not a deeper intellectual meaning behind these riots, other than Northern Ireland simply has not learned from it’s past. Why is the first reaction to a non-arrest to throw petrol bombs along Sandy Row? Why is the first reaction to this mob a point scoring tweet against Sinn Fein? Those in attendance of Bobby Storey’s funeral should absolutely face charges against gathering during a pandemic, and every single person breaking the law 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 remain poisoned by its history.

Christopher Megrath is a freelance journalist




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