So St. Patrick’s Day was intended to be a day when I was going to focus on the “diversions” part of blog’s title. And it certainly started out that way. Sarah and I got up (not all that early given our late night before) and headed down to Belfast City Hall for the parade. Big crowds, lots of families with young children hoisted on shoulders so they could see, and a general atmosphere of merriment.
The parade passed by rather quickly (it seemed much smaller than similar parades in the States) and then we walked off to get some “refreshment” before meeting up with friends. As we sat outside a cafe with drinks in hand, we noticed crowds of young teens, many of them draped with the Irish tricolor, all headed back toward City Hall.
We finished our drinks and followed, and as we got closer, we could see, above the gathering crowds, the waving Union and Ulster flags of the day’s small group of flag protesters, who were staging a 24-hour vigil in front of the City Hall to protest the decision made in December 2012 to stop flying the Union flag from the building on a daily basis (it is flown on designated days only).
And that’s when the inevitable occurred. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:
Northern Ireland’s entrenched factional tensions erupted when their arrival prompted a sectarian slanging match between unionists and nationalists draped in tricolours.
What unfolded was a display of pure tribalism. There was no “politics” on view in the standoff, just hurled abuse, taunts, chants, hot tempers, and police in riot gear holding the line that separated one group from the other. It all culminated with a Union flag burned by a crowd of jeering teenagers, encouraged by several older men who moved along the edges of the group whipping up their enthusiasm and directing their bile.
Yesterday’s display was a small taste of what is often called “recreational rioting” over here. When calmer heads express concern for the future, it is often about this generation. These kids are too young to know how bad things can get when they go bad. And while yesterday’s incident was mild compared to what happens here on an all too regular basis, you can see just how volatile the atmosphere remains. It would have taken very little for things to have gotten a lot worse. And that’s what scares people.