Flag Riots in Northern Ireland Grim Prospects Drive Youth to Sectarian Violence

The violent flag riots in Belfast have shown just how delicate relations between sectarian groups in the British province remain. They also reveal the frustrations of a generation that has grown up feeling misunderstood and disadvantaged.



Raymond Lavery was about to describe just how messy the situation has become in Belfast when a loud bang, probably a firecracker, ripped through the air a few meters away. The explosion was so loud that any normal person would duck for cover. But Lavery didn't even flinch.

He was standing in front of one of the many walls in the Northern Irish capital that separate Catholics and Protestants. The 52-year-old works for Inner East, an outreach project for boys and girls on the Protestant side of the wall. His office is near one of the streets where wooden pallets, trash bins and cars have been burning for weeks now. "It's not only about the flag anymore," he says.

On Dec. 3, the Belfast City Council voted to stop flying the British flag on the city hall every day. Instead, the Union Jack will now only be raised on special occasions. Protestants saw the decision as yet another defeat by the city's increasingly strong Catholic community, and it didn't take long for more than 1,000 Protestants to protest in front of the building. Lavery was among them.

"Our flag has flown for 106 years, why are they taking it away now of all times?" he asks, walking past houses that have long since had their window panes replaced with plexiglass -- a symbol of the conflict. If you want to find out whether you're in a potential troublespot of Belfast, just take a look at the windows.

Dismal Prospects

Lavery, who grew up on the east side of the city, is accustomed to war, having lived through decades of unrest between Protestant groups loyal to the United Kingdom and Catholic groups seeking union with Ireland. Until the 1980s he fought on the Protestant side. He was shot twice and spent two years in prison. His back bears the tattooed images of historic figures from the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group that attacked Catholics until their fight officially ended six years ago. After he was released from prison, Lavery became a social worker.

He has now been leading the youth project for 17 years. Most of his clients are between the ages of 12 and 25 and come from troubled families. "Many of them will never find jobs in their lifetimes," he says. Young people from working class families are becoming increasingly frustrated because they face even worse prospects than their parents did, says Lavery. But their dissatisfaction only turned into rage and violence after the flag decision.

Lavery would like to prevent them from throwing stones and firebombs at homes and police cars, but the lure of the streets is too strong. "The riots are more exciting," he says. Social workers have begun marching along with the youths during protests, despite the fact that they are just as incapable of putting out the fires as the Protestant political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

For a long time, they were able to persuade their constituents to behave peacefully, but recently they have lost support in working class neighbourhoods. It's also possible that the old Protestant loyalist paramilitary forces are agitating among the youth. The Northern Irish police chief has alleged that the Ulster Volunteer Force helped coordinate the protests. This is nonsense, said Lavery, adding that the police bear some of the responsibility for the unrest themselves. He said he witnessed one police officer beating a peaceful demonstrator with a truncheon.

Something to Believe In

A dozen demonstrators, mainly young men, stood freezing in the drizzle outside the offices of the non-sectarian Alliance Party on Upper Newtownards Road. They alleged that the party is partly to blame for the flag disaster because it sided with the Catholics.

Among them stood 16-year-old Karl, who his friends call K.D. He attends a trade school, though he hopes to study sport -- if he makes it to university, that is. But right now things aren't looking very promising. His mother works at a beauty salon, and he doesn't know his father. K.D. is upset that the Union Jack no longer flies above city hall. "Everyone needs something to believe in," he said.

So what does he believe in?

"In the Union," he said.

Next to him, Aaron shivered with cold. The heavyset 17-year-old is the only one in his household who earns money, working as an apprentice in a packaging factory. He has yet to miss a demonstration, videos of which he posts on YouTube. He fears that the Catholics in Northern Ireland could become so powerful that soon there won't be any room left for Protestants like him. "One day they will take everything from us," he said.

The two teens only know about the great unrest of the past, called "the Troubles," from the stories they've heard. But they grew up with the knowledge that they would be punished for their British identity. Their futures are as grey as the sky above Belfast, yet the British flag at least offered them a feeling of belonging.

At night when the barricades burn in Belfast, boys of K.D.' and Aaron's age throw stones, golf balls and petrol bombs. They are reminiscent of pictures from the past, only now some of the boys are even younger, sometimes just 10 years old.

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