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Bumpy road to peace for Northern Ireland

Violence escalates in Belfast as many in impoverished areas feel left behind by the peace process.
Last modified: 7 Jan 2013 21:59
Tensions have escalated since a December decision to stop flying the British flag year-round [AFP]

I'm no Northern Ireland specialist but it does rather feel like things have taken a bad turn in Belfast. Consecutive nights of violent clashes with the police show no sign of ending.

Loyalist protests will continue against the city council's decision to limit the flying of the union flag, until some concession is reached. Which means they'll be followed for more nights to come by violence once the peaceful crowds have dispersed, with small rioting mobs hurling whatever solid objects they can at the police.

No one seems to have a clue what that concession might be, and increasingly, it's unclear who even speaks for the thuggish young men and even children as young as 10 who are causing all this trouble.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland alleges paramilitary involvement, which is worrying, but the look I saw in the eyes of some on the streets last night suggests they see it as sport. Many have nothing else to do with their time and aren't likely to heed the PSNI chief constable's warning that they're throwing away their future.

What future, I imagine they'd ask.

Which is the very question Northern Ireland must ask itself.

A well-known nationalist city councillor told me Belfast is a changed city, a modern, multicultural success story able to attract tourists to a new world-class Titanic museum, and even host the MTV music awards. It's no longer a unionist fiefdom, he said. The flag issue, he concluded, is, for most people, sorted.

Well, he's obviously right on the first count: Belfast is much changed and badly needs to build on the tourism and foreign investment that has begun to trickle in. Real damage is now being done to those prospects.

But I'd venture he's way off the mark on the second. The flag issue is anything but sorted. The loyalist community, particularly in the poorer areas, is deeply aggrieved. It is, as one man told me, the last straw. Many in impoverished ghettos of the city feel left out and left behind by the peace process that they see as taking away far more than it gives back.

There will now be a lot of people questioning their faith in the process as a whole.

It is to be hoped, on Northern Ireland's behalf, that those people eventually decide there is no option but to continue on the path towards peace and reconciliation, however bumpy.

The alternative is awful to contemplate.