August 2, 2009
While the season has not taken Northern Ireland to brink of civil war, as happened all too often during the turbulent 1990s, this summer certainly illustrates that many tensions, sectarian and otherwise, continue to bubble in the Northern cauldron.
Summer has always been the most dangerous season in the North, with Protestant fraternal organizations, led by the Orange Order, holding hundreds of parades celebrating Protestant King William of Orange's pivotal 1690 victory over Catholic rival James II at the Battle of the Boyne.
While the battle is more than three centuries in the past, many Catholics in the North feel that the parades send a "we still own the place" message that is here and now, and particularly resent the parades that travel near or into predominantly Catholic areas.
Last month, violence erupted as more than 1,000 Orangemen marched through the heavily Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood in North Belfast, with protestors hurling Molotov cocktails, police firing plastic bullets, and dozens of injuries being sustained in what officials called the worst rioting in Belfast in years.
Dissident republicans were blamed for orchestrating the violence, with the mainstream republicans of Sinn Fein charging that the dissidents were trying to advance an "anti-peace process and sectarian agenda."
While rebuking the dissidents on their own side, Sinn Fein also suggested the some of the blame belonged on the unionist side, with party president Gerry Adams saying: "What happened ... is wrong. It's reprehensible. And all of us who are leaders, and I include the Orange leadership, have a duty to look at how these disturbances occur."
While most of the focus was on the Ardoyne violence, the riot there was the most conspicuous but by no means the only disquieting event to occur in Northern Ireland as the summer unfolded.
The summer began with more than 100 Romanian families fleeing the North following a wave of attacks on their South Belfast homes. Northern Ireland Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie said the spate of the attacks, which resulted in smashed windows and broken doors, "raises very fundamental questions about the type of society we want to develop and create in Northern Ireland some 15 years after the ceasefire."
In the aftermath of the attacks on the homes of Romanian immigrants, threatening letters were sent to immigration centers representing Belfast's Islamic, Indian, and Polish communities. Additionally, there were destructive acts that harkened back to Northern Ireland's long history of sectarian strife, with Catholic churches and Gaelic Athletic Association property in County Antrim being paint-bombed and burned, while several Orange Order lodges and Protestant homes received similar treatment.
During the 1990s, violent face-offs over Orange Order parades led to death and destruction and brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war. While this summer's incidents certainly did not take the North all the way to the edge, they did illustrate the tensions and resentments that lie just beneath the surface, tensions that may be exacerbated by the economic difficulties that Northern Ireland is now coping with.
It is clear that the political progress achieved in recent years has not led to the smoothing of all of Northern Ireland's rough edges.
In the midst of the summer crisis, Northern Ireland's new culture minister, Nelson McCausland, a Protestant and a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, caused a stir by saying that he would never set foot inside a Catholic church for any kind of event, religious or cultural. "I have personal views regarding worship, and I would not attend a service in a Roman Catholic church," McCausland said, adding, "That has always been my position and remains such. That doesn't mean that I do not have good relationships with Roman Catholic people. I wouldn't want to offend them and I am sure they wouldn't want to offend me." Some Catholics made clear that they were offended by the government minister's remarks and saw them as further destabilizing an already difficult situation.
Sinn Fein Assembly member Daithi McKay said the attacks on Catholic churches in his district were motivated by the same anti-Catholic sentiment articulated by McCausland. "Since he came into office less than a week ago, Nelson McCausland has engaged in a media campaign attacking the GAA, the Irish language, and now the Catholic Church. The sectarianism which underpins his politics is exactly the same as that which motivated the overnight attacks on the three Catholic Churches in the Ballymena area."
Clearly, Northern Ireland, which has come so far, still has miles to cover in its journey to a peaceful, non-sectarian future.