Former U.S. diplomat Richard Haass is returning to Northern Ireland for talks aimed at preventing a repeat of the worst sectarian violence since the 1990s. He will find not much has changed since he left a decade ago.
Haass arrives in Belfast today to starts all-party talks after confrontations and riots reminiscent of the worst scenes of the Troubles paralyzed the city in July and August.
“A lot of people reacted saying they thought the situation in Northern Ireland was resolved,” Haass, 62, told reporters on a conference call on Sept. 13. “The news of the violence over the past six to nine months came as a surprise to many Americans, an unwelcome surprise.”
A decision by Belfast city hall to stop flying the British flag fuelled unrest that was then compounded by the annual marches of Protestant groups and counter demonstrations. The violence is hampering efforts to rebuild an economy crushed between the recessions in the U.K. and Ireland.
The Police Federation is now calling for a six-month ban on parades in time for next summer’s marching season, which culminates in the July 12 gathering to mark the 1690 victory of Protestant King William of Orange’s army in Ireland.
“It can’t go on like this,” said Terry Spence, head of the Police Federation, which says nearly 700 of its members have been injured in the riots. “My members are fatigued. Many of the injured officers have broken limbs. Society has to make up its mind, do they want to continue with the number of parades and the violence that it can bring?”
Against that background, Northern Ireland’s politicians appointed Haass to chair talks on issues ranging from parades to protests and flags to emblems. Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, led the U.S.’s peace efforts in the region between 2001 and 2003.
Unemployment is among the highest of anywhere in the U.K., while foreclosure demands are rising at the fastest rate in the country as the economy in the region still struggles to move past sectarian conflict and the end of heavy industry.
The scale of his task is underscored by the Orange Order’s response to the Police Federation’s proposal.
“There’s no way we’ll do it,” said George Chittick, leader of the Orange Order, a Protestant group that celebrates a 17th century victory over Catholics by staging thousands of parades across Northern Ireland each year. “I’d rather go to jail than see my civil liberties taken from me.”
In July, a month after the Group of Eight summit was held in the province, dozens of police were injured in a week of violence in Belfast as the Orange Order, which has about 34,000 members, tried to overturn a ban on the group marching past a Catholic area of north Belfast.
Petrol bombs, bricks and bottles were thrown at riot police, who responded with plastic bullets and water cannon.
As Belfast hosted the World Police and Fire Games for the first time in August, the closing ceremony was marred when hundreds of loyalists -- groups who want to keep Northern Ireland as part of the U.K. -- attacked police with metal poles, petrol bombs and bricks. Cars were hijacked and set alight.
The Orange Order itself has also come under attack, with more than a dozen assaults on the organization’s halls over the summer marching season, it said.
“At different points, there’s been a frustration with the peace process,” said Pete Shirlow, a politics professor at Queen’s University in Belfast. “Now you are seeing that frustration being brought onto the streets.”
In north Belfast, loyalists have set up a makeshift camp just yards away from Ardoyne, the Catholic area they were banned from marching in July. Dozens of British flags fly from the camp, which is manned around-the-clock.
Some residents from Ardoyne, where Irish tricolors fly and murals commemorate the area’s dead members of the Irish Republican Army, look on. Between the two sides are dozens of bomb-proof police jeeps and officers clad in visors and protective clothing, reminiscent of the days before the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998.
“It’s pathetic,” said Toni-Marie Mailey, a 21-year-old mother-of-one from Ardoyne. “You can’t even walk up to the shops at night time in case you get hit by them.”
Under Haass, who is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, the all-party group of politicians will seek to deliver a set of recommendations by the end of the year.
“We are under no illusion how complex some of the issues are,” Haass said. “It’s not simple, it’s not easy and that is why this political process was created.”