Opinion

Brian Feeney: Attempt to sectarianise unionist disorder a serious and malevolent development

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Brian Feeney
Brian Feeney Brian Feeney

Wednesday night’s disturbances were the most serious in years for a number of reasons. For the previous week sporadic violence was confined to predictable unionist districts, but on Wednesday there was an attempt to invade nationalist west Belfast through the most dangerous interface in the north, the one between Shankill and Clonard.

Given the young ages of the rioters the irony of the location will be lost on them, but the gates at Lanark Way are an extension of the huge concrete interface built behind Bombay Street which unionists and B Specials burnt in 1969.

Unionists and B Specials also extensively burnt Bombay Street houses in June 1921 in what people then called ‘Belfast’s Bloody Sunday’, an unwanted title for which many places in Ireland have competed. The development of unionist political thinking has come a long way in the last hundred years, eh?

The attempt, organised on social media, to involve nationalists in street disturbances, or, if you like, to sectarianise the recent upsurge in unionist violence, is a very serious and malevolent development. Although attackers from the Shankill managed to burst open the gates, police succeeded in keeping both sides apart, helped with varying degrees of success by local republicans intervening with the young rioters.

Some people have talked about escalation in the sense of larger scale confrontations between unionists and police, but the most dangerous escalation would be serious sectarian fighting at interfaces. This development is what will be exercising the minds of senior police tonight and on Saturday with illegal marches and demonstrations organised in provocative locations.

So far the responses from unionist politicians, whose weasel words justified street disturbances as understandable righteous anger against fictitious grievances, have been disgracefully disingenuous. The queen of whataboutery herself, Arlene Foster, can seldom make a statement deploring unionist violence without being able to stop herself adding in some aggravating irrelevant remark about past republican violence.

At no point has Foster ever paused to consider her own responsibility for the failures of politics and rising tensions in the recent past. Yet it is painfully obvious that the reckless path she chose after the shock of the LucidTalk poll in February is simply a misguided attempt to save her own political skin. Until that poll, revealing a collapse in DUP support to one point ahead of Alliance and a surge in support for the TUV, Foster was talking about living with the protocol as international law and perceiving opportunities in it for trading with UK and EU.

Then suddenly, the diametrically opposite position: stealing Jim Allister’s futile ‘plan’ and adding to it, resisting the protocol, boycotting its operations, joining an official opposition to the protocol. Wasn’t it an astonishing coincidence that DUP councillors in Larne simultaneously discovered intense opposition to the protocol? Nevertheless, the campaign went nowhere, goods moving smoothly, no empty shelves, grace period extended. Foster then seized the DPP’s decision not to prosecute SF figures as an opportunity to distract attention and recover hardline support from the TUV.

Calling for the chief constable’s resignation was possibly the most ill-considered reflex action she ever took. How can the chief constable be accused of not prosecuting people when he recommended prosecution but the DPP decided against? Now she is walking back from that position having met the chief constable yesterday. How she ‘unasks’ for his resignation will be amusing to watch.

In the meantime it hasn’t been amusing for any sane person to watch the DUP, as Jonathan Powell put it, “playing with matches”.