HRinI is delighted to welcome this post from Prof. Bill Rolston of the University of Ulster (Jordanstown). Bill is a Professor of Sociology at the School of Sociology and Applied Social Studies and Director of the Transitional Justice Institute at UU. His research focuses on popular political culture and community and voluntary politics in Northern Ireland.
Some years ago PJ O’Rourke wrote a book called Holidays in Hell. As the title suggests, he went to visit a number of countries in which there was violent political conflict, one of which was Ireland. He wrote that he had not expected to find Belfast so normal and inviting, forgetting of course to examine how much energy, time and money had gone into ensuring that the violence was corralled into a number of working class areas. He refers specifically to the fact that the news reports and photos he was used to in the US had completely distorted his expectations. It was, he said, as if you invited a photographer into your house but only let them photograph the wardrobe in the teenager’s bedroom.
I don’t normally quote right-wing commentators, but I thought of O’Rourke when I saw the footage over the Twelfth of July of the rioting in Ardoyne, North Belfast.
It was like the old days all over: the world’s media were there in force and they were not disappointed as the countless photos of stone-throwing youths and petrol bombers were sent around the world. Most of the rest of Belfast was going about its business and the lakes of Fermanagh and the winding coast roads of Antrim could have been on some other planet. But try telling that to the tour companies trying to market holidays in Northern Ireland. To put it in context: a few days later around 50 people were killed in a suicide bomb in Iraq, but this did not get anything like the coverage given to highly localised rioting in Belfast, which incidentally involved no deaths.
The other task facing the international – and local – media was how to explain what was happening. Basically there were two explanations which emerged: first, that it was all due to yobs, hoodlums, feral young men, and second, that they were put up to it by sinister men in the shadows, godfathers of violence. For thirty years and more these were well known tropes in media reporting, and they are no more valuable now than they ever were.
Let’s take the first ‘explanation’. It may well be that some of the teenagers who were rioting are apprentice psychopaths, a lost generation with no job prospects, no desire to pursue their education, no respect for values or institutions, etc. But that is much too easy. I have no reason to believe that those of school age will fail to return to school after the holidays. I am sure that some of them will end up unemployed, but not all, and for those that do that will say as much about class structures in this society as about their personal motivation. I am certain that many will go on to be decent parents and will never torture cats or mug old ladies. So, why were they rioting? Was it recreational as a number of commentators suggested? – something to do on a boring summer evening in Belfast. Were they somehow the crude conscience of their community, most of whom, even those who would never consider rioting, are deeply offended at the way in which they are locked into their community every July to let Orange marchers from another district go by? Were they showing off to their girlfriends? Were they protesting at Sinn Féin’s alleged abandonment of the republican cause? Maybe all of those things, and more.
There was one telling confrontation during the riots. Bobby Storey, veteran and venerated republican, ex-IRA leader, ex-prisoner, was trying to clear the kids off the streets and was told to get lost (and worse) by one teenager. And there’s the rub. Veterans like Storey, who have lived through bombings, shootings, imprisonment, etc. are among the most vocal in telling young kids to avoid doing the same – a case of ‘do what I say, not what I did’. But the logical retort of some of the kids is: why should the adults have had all the fun? Why can’t this generation of kids have their day in the sun – or at least in the glow of petrol bombs? If truth be told, Storey’s generation had their first political outings in precisely identical situations. Like today’s kids, they had few political thoughts when they rioted and later graduated to armalites. Then as now it is unlikely that 15 year olds stand, stones in hand, recalling the words of Martin Luther King Junior: ‘The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility’. For Storey’s generation political awareness only came through the discussions, the reading and the camaraderie while they were in jail.
And what of the second ‘explanation’? – that these kids are being programmed by sinister dissident republicans, intent on getting their own back on Sinn Féin for selling out, and in the process scuttling the peace process. There is no doubt of dissident republican involvement, and there is no doubt that they have it in for Sinn Féin. But for three decades there were those of us who refused to succumb to the easy explanation that the only reason for political violence was because of mindless thuggery, psychopathology, and self-aggrandisement on the part of our equivalent of Cosa Nostra. I see no reason to surrender to those easy explanations now. I’m not entirely sure what some of these dissidents are about. Do they want to keep the ‘flame of republicanism’ lit, as it has been kept lit by at least a few in every generation over the last century? Do they seriously think that they can derail the peace process at this point in the face of overwhelming support from the nationalist community in the North? Are they merely trying to embarrass their erstwhile comrades in Sinn Féin? Do some of them watch the riots with as much bewilderment as I do while deep down yearning for a socialist alternative to the current dispensation? Are we in a transition phase to an era of mass political action to complete the promises, national and social, which they believe can never be delivered by the Good Friday Agreement, or alternatively, to the slow, depressing build-up to another war? I genuinely don’t know, and, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure how exactly we could answer those questions at this moment. But there is one thing that is sure: the answers will never come through the dramatic but ultimately superficial coverage that passed for information and analysis in much of the mass media last week.