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Belfast, riots and class: a tale of two cities

Belfast riots 2013The arrival of Swedish students to my Northern Ireland school was cheerfully described as an ‘exchange’ trip. But the closest we ever got to Stockholm was a jaunt down the road to IKEA. No – the icily beautiful Swedes would breeze into our lives, ruffle everyone’s feathers by saying our blazers and ties were “like something out of Hogwarts”, astound everyone with their ability to wear H&M in the cool, European way one is meant to, and then breeze back out again.

They were there, nominally, to quiz us about the ‘situation’ in Northern Ireland. They did this with heavy frowns bothering their Scandinavian faces, as though they worried that being on anything less than the verge of tears would be interpreted as flippancy.

One of their concerns was whether it was quite safe to wear orange or green clothes. The fear was that the feral Irishman would see the colour of the “other side” and like a bull with a red rag, charge. A riot would thus begin and they, at the age of 17, would be responsible for 100 more years of sectarian conflict. We appreciated that this would indeed be a heavy burden for anyone to bear, let alone a Swede, and so did our best to ignore the hollow rage created by such patronising nonsense.

Aside from the question of whether sartorial choices are sufficient fodder for genocide, they were obsessed with peace walls. For those who don’t know, peace walls are high metal barriers placed between majority loyalist and majority nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

I do not say “for those who live outside Northern Ireland” because as the Swedes found to their dismay, we didn’t know what they were either. As one of my friends said, testily, when we had been continually pressed on the subject: “I have never even seen a peace wall”.

Cosy as we were in the North Down hills, they may as well have asked us the whereabouts of Narnia.

These mythical objects seemed to exist in an entirely different Belfast to the one we shopped and ate and went to the cinema in. Some of my friends were Catholic and others were Protestant, but there was no hint of sectarianism between us, except in the darkly playful banter that characterises a Northern Irish sense of humour. Actual sectarian hatred and violence were very nearly foreign concepts to us. Even when a bomb went off down the road from the school, it was somehow all a bit detached from our happy vacuum.

This in part explains the confusion with which the middle classes witness rioting season. It comes every summer (and sometimes outside of summer): angry young working class men throw bricks and bottles, rock police vans – and stuff generally gets trashed. We breathe a sigh of relief when no one is killed, and write it off as mindless violence. All the while refusing to acknowledge the reality of what is going on.

The working class enclaves in inner-city Belfast have soaring poverty and joblessness rates. Once the voice of hardline unionism, the DUP has increasingly tacked to the mainstream and is seen to represent these communities – its core vote – less and less. One could say a similar process is happening on the other side of the political divide.

Increasing disenfranchisement results and the people who live in these areas are left to howl their protests with bricks on riot shields. They have no prospects, no political clout, investment or stake in mainstream society. To them, it is not the Belfast carved by peace walls that is the myth, as it was to me and my school friends, but the Northern Ireland of prosperity.

It suits the political classes far better if the rioting is simply the recreational activity of idiots because then they need not engage with its root causes. But to declare rioting as meaningless is to turn a blind eye to the realities of life within working class communities. The political solution has failed them; the new Northern Ireland has left them behind. Perhaps they are just trying to get our attention again.

We also recommend Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on the 2011 English riots

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