Our traditional summer riots this year acquired added menace due to the close involvement of dissident republicans. Using the Orange marching season as their pretext, paramilitary groups orchestrated violence in several areas, marshalling an army of young foot soldiers, distinguished by their loathing for the police, and dismissed by Sinn Féin as ’anti-social elements’. Despite this direction by shadowy forces, and the obvious parallels with trouble from another era, recent events have a distinct modern edge. Between cameramen - who jostle with the rioters - helicopters and mobile phones, the latest disorder in North Belfast was captured for posterity from every conceivable angle.
These are the ‘Youtube riots’ of a new generation and a proliferation of amateur video merely focuses yet another spotlight on the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The PSNI was already arguably the most scrutinised police force in the world. In the face of fierce rioting, it is certainly the most restrained.I argued that the PSNI is hampered in its attempts to police nationalist areas by Sinn Féin's attempt to be, simultaneously, anti-establishment and of the establishment.
Despite the intense provocation and acute danger it faced, the PSNI’s response remained resolutely proportionate. Remarkably, in the teeth of serious threats to the safety of its officers, the force refused to lose sight of the wellbeing of rioters.
This new sensitive approach to policing in Northern Ireland represents, to one end of the political spectrum, the civilising of a brutal militia, to the other it marks the emasculation of law and order. Most people simply recognise that enormous strides have been made towards providing a police service acceptable to the broadest possible cross-section of the community.
Nevertheless, the PSNI remains hamstrung in its attempts to police republican areas by half-hearted backing from Sinn Féin. Its journey on policing has been remarkable, but the party still feels comfortable only when it holds the force to account, and unnerved when it offers genuine support. Witness Gerry Kelly’s eagerness to condemn a limited number of baton rounds fired by officers last week.
This antiestablishment ethos appears ever more ludicrous with Sinn Féin firmly entrenched as a fixture of UK regional government. It also feeds traditional antipathy toward the security forces and makes it easier for dissidents to furnish so-called ‘recreational rioting’ with its hard political edge.
Politics provide the violence with its peculiar venom and politics allow dissidents to harness youthful rebellion, but Holy Cross parish priest Fr Gary Donegan correctly identifies that there are more conventional factors at play. The rebellious undercurrent which breeds disdain for police is not confined to nationalist areas. The walls of loyalist neighbourhoods are often adorned with graffiti warning ‘police touts’ of possible violent consequences. Further afield, tens of thousands of Facebook fans felt moved to hail ’kop killer’ Raoul Moat as a ‘legend‘, after he gunned down an officer in the North East of England.
The potential for general disaffection to spill over into violence toward the police, is not exclusive to Northern Ireland. The circumstances which allow terrorists to turn that disaffection into an ongoing deadly threat are more unusual. And the intense critical scrutiny, under which the PSNI must counteract that threat, is more or less unique.
Last week’s disorder raises issues around personal and parental responsibility which politicians cannot reasonably be expected to address. The context of alienation, deprivation and boredom that surrounds young rioters, however, is exacerbated by an ineffective Assembly and an inactive Executive.
Policing riots would be much easier were Sinn Féin to back the PSNI properly, and drop a chippy, anti-establishment posturing which becomes more absurd with each passing year. Condemning violence, and maintaining a presence on the ground, is all very well, but the Shinners need to be consistent.