Silly season

25 May

Great, the hotter weather is bringing out the nutters left, right and centre this week it seems. And my grumpometer is hitting record levels as a result. We have two silly seasons here in Northern Ireland. The first culminates in the 12th July fortnight and the chaos which inevitably follows the Orange Order marches. The second is in the run-up to Halloween. We don’t do Guy Fawlks here, but the excuse to let off fireworks in the dark and at people is too good to avoid it seems.

You might not live here in Northern Ireland, and you might think that all our summer woes are because of the Orange Order marches. I’ve seen the episode of Captain Planet which puts everything down to warring Catholics and Protestants, and the Simpsons St Patrick’s Day episodes which have basically given the same approach.

It might not be immediately obvious, but not every Catholic is a supporter of the IRA. Not every Protestant is a fervent Orangeman. Some of us are able to go about our lives co-existing without the need for a fight, without violence and without the need to either march or hurl objects at someone because they want to march. Belfast might not get chunks blown out of it quite so often, but as you might have noticed from the recent bomb scares, the vast majority of the population on ‘both’ sides of the perceived community divide really don’t want to go back to the bad old days.

1980s Belfast mural. (c) RJE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

I’m lucky perhaps, I grew up at the tail end of ‘The Troubles’. I’m old enough to remember balaclava-clad men with their impromptu check-points and large guns. I remember being evacuated from Belfast city centre because of firebombs. And I remember the resistance to the Good Friday Agreement back in 1997. But at the same time, my friends weren’t shot, weren’t blown up, and I never had anyone try and recruit me to any cause.

Back in the 1990s some of you will recall the country grinding to a standstill over the Orange march at Drumcree (a wee village no-one had ever really heard of, near Portadown). There were stand-offs and a huge police presence which forbade the Orange Order from taking a route which passed the Nationalist Garvaghy Road estate. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that particular decision, there errupted (for several years in a row), the most awful public disobedience – with impromptu road blocks set up around the country. Cars and vans and buses were set alight. People were hijacked. Businesses were looted. People were shot and killed. I recall visiting a friend in Newtownards for a couple of days (about 8 miles from my then home in Belfast) and ending up stranded for a week owing to the dangers on the roads. It was frightening.

The thing is, whilst much of the action was supposedly in support of the Drumcree standoff, it was businesses on both sides of the community which were destroyed, and much of the violence was perpetrated within communities. It also prompted rioting in kind from the other side.

Conclusion: The vast majority of violence in Northern Ireland is not committed by people who are ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, are ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Unionist’, but rather people who just want to cause violence and disruption. People using ‘protest’ to cover up illegal acts.

Witness this afternoon…

One of my routes home takes me past the ‘Loyalist’ Donegall Road, and then by the ‘Nationalist’ Markets area of Belfast. Twenty years ago that probably would have been a very stupid idea. Now, well its moderately less so, but I’m reminded I’m going to have to modify my routes to avoid both those spots as the teenagers and the young adults are out and messing around. And by messing around, I mean looking for trouble.

The last few times I’ve walked back home in the evenings I’ve seen the crowds of them hanging around (my favourites are the ones outside the bar called ‘The Hideout’ on the Donegal Pass… I reckon if ever there’s trouble the hoods are probably lurking in there). Tonight I was passing the ‘loyalist’ estate and saw a group of maybe a dozen teenagers lobbing large chunks of masonry skywards in the direction of the fire station, and then run off. As I got to the end of the pass I could see them running past the old gasworks, where they slowed down. Walking towards the Markets I saw them cross the car park and I did start to rethink my route (best avoid groups of teenagers in certain bits of Belfast). Just before I got to the crossing point opposite St. George’s Market a group of them started firing rocks and bottles onto a police car which just approached the lights – mere feet in front of me. I held back, dumbstruck as they ran off, with the glass all over the bonnet and windshield of the panda car. Needless to say I crossed away from them as quickly as possible…

Then up on the Albertbridge Road some woman in her late 30s walking on the pavement towards me, decided to lean across my space and cry ‘boo’ in my face. WTF?! Really? Why you do that? Is there ever any need? Are you 5?

So that was someone ‘mental’ in both sections of the community. And lest anyone think I’m picking on the Markets boys, I’ve had stones hurled at me before from the Ballybeen Estate, and a firework nearly thrown in my face by Sandy Row.

I don’t get these folks that attack the fire brigade or the ambulance service? Both are there to save lives, and neither has particular leanings to any political side. When their houses are on fire, or one of them gets shot they’ll be more than happy to have the service come in to help them. Its so irresponsible.

And every summer they drag themselves out. And they’re never the ones leading the marches or the peaceful protests either, instead they hide their faces with makeshift masks and go on the rampage. They threaten innocent law-abiding people, and don’t give a shit about anyone other than themselves and their group of chums. Its little wonder outsiders have such a dim view of our country. I’ve lived here all my life and this gives me a dim impression. And damn sure, no matter which side decides to pick me up for abuse, I’d get the living shit kicked out of me by the lot of them. I’m too liberal… I’m too liberal even for my parents and they wouldn’t do that to me…

It was a revulsion to this way of life that encouraged me to get caught up in cross-community work as a teenager. I joined the ‘Horizon Peace Group’ which was a cross-community, cross-border initiative. Made some great friends, and did my very best to rid myself of any prejudices I might have. Now we’re in ‘peace time’ there doesn’t seem to be the same push for those sorts of activities any more which is a great shame. Looking at the streets of Belfast we bloody need them.

Of course, kids today do whatever they damn well want anyway without fear of punishment. The law has become week, and penalties lame. I can kill a man and be back on the streets in five years. Hardly justice is it?

I don’t want to go on, but you know there’s going to be more of this before the summer is through… Wonder if I can get away for the July fortnight?…

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