Bitter sectarian violence erupted at the interface between the republican Short Strand and the loyalist lower Newtownards Road in east Belfast on the evening of Monday 20 June.
Several hundred people were involved in clashes which saw two people shot in the legs and petrol bombs, bricks, bottles and other missiles were thrown on both sides.
Inevitably, conflicting reports have been given from both sides.
The Sinn Féin lord mayor of Belfast, Niall Ó Donnghaile, blamed Loyalists for organising the violence, while Ulster Unionist MLA, Michael Copeland, alleged that the events were “a follow-on from last night when houses on the Newtownards Road were attacked from Strand Walk and the grounds of St Matthew’s Church.”
The loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is being blamed by the police for initiating the riots after a group of men wearing camouflage and balaclavas gathered around 9pm on the lower Newtownards Road. It is being investigated whether this operation was sanctioned by the UVF central leadership, but police have blamed the UVF for two shots fired at a police land rover and “are satisfied that at the very least members of east Belfast UVF were involved in organising the disorder.”
This incident comes after the Independent Monitoring Commission blamed the UVF for the murder of Red Hand Commando member Bobby Moffat last May and sheds doubt on the status of the UVF ceasefire. It may also suggest a power struggle within the ranks of the Loyalist organisation after the Moffat murder sparked feud fears.
That the riots swelled so quickly is a troubling reminder of the realities of sectarian division and social deprivation beneath the veneer of the peace process. Loyalist and Republican community workers have long monitored the interface to prevent so-called “recreational rioting” by youths on both sides but were overwhelmed by the scale of these disturbances.
The recent disintegration of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a populist Loyalist party, is a symptom of a crisis of representation within depressed Loyalist communities. In this context the recent appearance of UVF murals in east Belfast have been taken as an indication that the paramilitary group wishes to stamp its authority on the area.
The militarists in the Catholic community have shown increased activity recently, too. They will remain marginal so long as the now mainstream-political Sinn Fein can sustain the Catholic community’s support for the 1998 power-sharing settlement.
Does the UVF — or do elements in the UVF — want to “detonate” the Republican militarists by actions like 20 June to destabilise the “power-sharing” settlement?