by Kevin Meagher
So thirty-two police officers were injured, an MP was knocked unconscious by a projectile, hundreds were rioting in the streets, water cannons and baton rounds were used against civilians in a British city and yet it didn’t make the top five news stories on Friday night’s BBC Ten O’Clock News?
Welcome to Northern Ireland; that far-away place full of violent Irish people who seem to actually enjoy fighting and causing trouble. This is at least seems to be the default view of Britain’s political and media classes, that’s of course when they’re not completely ignoring the place.
There’s more attention paid to disturbances on the other side of the world than there is to the same thing happening in our own backyard. British politics long ago became acclimatised to Northern Ireland as a ‘little local difficulty.’ Not an eyelid does it now bat.
Friday was the “Glorious Twelfth” – the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when Protestant King William III of Orange defeated Catholic King James II. It’s a big deal for Ulster’s protestants and marks the high point of the “marching season”. In the rest of Britain, the celebration of royal occasions are either marked by street parties or, better still, studiously ignored.
Not in Northern Ireland, but the historical significance is merely a footnote. It’s unlikely that the loyalists throwing golf balls at police officers are history buffs, despite waving ceremonial swords in defiance of the parades commission’s ruling that a contentious Orange march could not proceed through a nationalist enclave in north Belfast.
This is where Democratic Unionist MP, Nigel Dodds, was struck by a brick and knocked unconscious. He was booted out of the Commons chamber the other day for implying the Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, was lying; so he’s not had a great week. Normally, our politicians are only used to metaphorical brickbats being hurled in their direction. In response, the police fired water cannons at the protestors. In Britain the use of kettling is enough to cause liberal apoplexy.
When blasting high-pressure water jets at civilians is insufficient, the police rely on the wonderfully euphemistic Attenuating Energy Projectile instead. These are sometimes called baton rounds, which is itself a euphemism for plastic bullets. Twenty-two were fired at protestors on Friday night alone. Many of them were children and a 14 year-old was among those eventually arrested. Throughout the Troubles, seventeen people – ten aged under 18 – were killed by plastic bullets, yet their regular tactical use merits little more than a passing remark in the British media.
Last night saw another bout of violence. As the BBC nonchalantly puts it this morning: “Officers were attacked with petrol bombs, fireworks, laser pens and stones in the Woodvale area. Police fired 10 baton rounds and deployed water cannon.”
While Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, it is surely not unreasonable for people there to be treated to the same standards of civilised policing that apply in other British cities? Northern Ireland’s frequent civil disturbances are serious and well-organised and the Police Service of Northern Ireland usually feels justified in suspending Marquis of Queensbury rules when it comes to ‘sorting it out’; but their tactics would be unconscionable in any other part of the UK.
Indeed, if this was rioting in Bristol, Manchester or London it would be the main preoccupation of our political elite. But where is the meeting of COBRA? Where is the demand for an emergency debate in parliament? Where are the comments from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband about this weekend’s carnage? Ne’er a word from any of them, it seems.
After all, what goes on in Northern Ireland stays in Northern Ireland.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut