Inside Story

How divided is Northern Ireland?

As tensions escalate on the streets of Belfast, we ask if changing demographics could reignite 'the troubles'.
Last Modified: 10 Jan 2013 12:30

Rioting has returned to the streets of Northern Ireland, stirring memories of decades of sectarian violence.

"This wasn't a vote against British culture. This was a vote for equality. It was a vote to bring Belfast into the 21st century …. [The] Union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall for designated days, and in some ways in London, that is currently the procedure over Buckingham Palace … and Belfast is in a part of the United Kingdom that is still contested."

- Niall O'Donnghaile, a Sinn Fein councillor

Loyalists are angry over a decision to only fly the British Union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days and loyalist paramilitaries are being accused of fanning the flames of unrest.

For a nearly a week there have been running battles between police and protesters in Northern Ireland. Politicians have been attacked, police pelted with petrol bombs and rocks, and property destroyed.

Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said Belfast and Northern Ireland were being held to ransom.

"It's not acceptable that those who say they are defending a Union flag are actually doing it by hurling bricks and petrol bombs at police …. It's also doing huge damage to Northern Ireland's image abroad."

Belfast councillors decided in December not to fly the Union flag permanently at the City Hall and to instead to limit the days it will be raised.

"It started off as a result of Sinn Fein trying to cover the embarrassment that they have of now accepting that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, that their ministers have met the Queen, shaken hands with the Queen, they have accepted the police who they used to blow up and kill, and pass laws that require the royal assent."

- Sammy Wilson, a Democratic Unionist Party MP

The issue has raised tensions between loyalists, who want to maintain links to Britain, and Republicans who want a united Ireland.

Loyalists say their very identity is under threat.

On Monday, Matt Baggott, the Northern Ireland police chief, said loyalist paramilitaries were stirring up trouble.

"I am concerned that senior members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in east Belfast, as individuals, have been increasingly orchestrating some of the violence."

Joining Inside Story for the discussion with presenter Shiulie Ghosh are guests: Niall O'Donnghaile, a Sinn Fein councillor; Sammy Wilson, a member of parliament for the Democratic Unionist Party; and Eamonn Mallie, a historian and author of The Fight for Peace: Secret Story Behind the Irish Peace Process and the Endgame in Ireland.

"[Belfast] is changing. The dynamics of it is changing. This city now, according to the latest census, throws up the statistic that it is essentially going ... nationalist in makeup. Northern Ireland, totally ... has 48 percent Protestants and 45 percent Catholics. So what you're witnessing now is shifting sands, population-wise, dynamics-wise in the city."

Eamonn Mallie, a historian and author

Timeline of civil unrest in Northern Ireland:

Northern Ireland endured three decades of civil unrest, known as 'the Troubles'. It stems from largely Catholic support for a united Ireland, and largely Protestant backing for Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain. A Catholic civil rights movement escalated into rioting in Derry and Belfast in 1969. It marked the return of British troops to Northern Ireland. And in 1972 the army shot dead 14 Catholic protesters on what became known as Bloody Sunday. The North Ireland government was suspended, and direct rule imposed from London. Two years later, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) responded by launching a bombing campaign in Ireland and on the British mainland. Three decades of violence, which cost the lives of around 3,000 people, largely ended with the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in April 1998.


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