BELFAST POWER STRUGGLE: Violence Surprises Leaders

Masked loyalists attack Belfast neighborhood in late June / PhotopressbelfastMasked loyalists attack Belfast neighborhood in late June / Photopressbelfast

By Joe Leary
Special to the BIR

After many years of relative peace, severe rioting and gunfire broke out again in Belfast in June. Practically everyone was surprised. Guns being fired? Three people shot? How could this happen again? Why?

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) clearly stated that the loyalist paramilitary group The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was to blame. Apparently there is a new mad dog on the loose in Belfast. The people and the newspapers refer to him as the “Beast in the East,” a supposedly uncontrollable renegade bent on building a power base for himself. “The Beast” is trying to control the UVF in East Belfast while in disagreement with the regular UVF hierarchy across the River Lagan in West and North Belfast.

The trouble was confined to the Short Strand area in East Belfast. This is a Catholic enclave of approximately 3,000 souls that has been attacked on and off for as long as it has existed. The Short Strand is surrounded by 100 percent Protestant neighborhoods which Catholics have to travel through to get into Belfast or anywhere else. Originally, a small group of Catholics arrived years ago in 1831 to work in the close-by Harland and Wolff shipyards, but as they grew in numbers the Protestant majority felt threatened and the Catholics soon found they weren’t going to be hired in the shipyards. They have been struggling ever since to make lives for themselves.

The Short Strand has its own Catholic church, St. Matthew’s, and its own St. Matthew’s primary school which 325 children attend. It is a walled-in community to protect the citizens inside. For many years the Catholics who live there have kept four-by-eight sheets of plywood at the ready to protect their windows from projectiles and petrol bombs that come flying over the walls. They have even painted them in bright colors with pictures of flowers. During the years prior to the Good Friday agreement, fire hoses lay on the sidewalks for emergency use 24 hours a day.

This is the community “The Beast” attacked on Monday evening, June20. Under his organization, UVF paramilitaries were bused in from around the city. Dressed mostly in black or military fatigues with dark head coverings, they first attacked St. Matthew’s Church and the surrounding homes. Almost immediately, the tougher elements of the Short Strand appeared to defend their turf.

White and yellow police riot trucks arrived and the battle was on. On Tuesday night it got worse; each side began using guns to fire indiscriminately across the walls. Three people were hit by the gunfire – a Protestant youth, 16, a Protestant man, 25, and a working press photographer. All three have been released from the hospital. Several others are still being treated for serious head injuries.

Local people on both sides call the rioting thugs “head bangers,” an obvious term of derision. The trouble has been described by police as the worst in 10 years. Belfast was shocked. One civic leader told the Boston Irish Reporter that he could not understand the rioting, especially 13 years after the Good Friday agreement.

The Northern Ireland Government moved in immediately and as of this writing no further violence has occurred. The leaders of the major political parties, Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, have condemned the rioting and street marshals from both sides are in the neighborhood to discourage any sign of further trouble.

Has the leader and organizer of the violence, the so-called “Beast of the East,” achieved his purpose? Or was this just an effort to gain attention and prove he could cause such trouble? He certainly found a willing group of “head bangers” to follow his orders.
June and July are the troublesome parade months in Northern Ireland and the hope is that the recent Short Strand riots do not foretell more serious trouble ahead.