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N. Ireland's Protestants Feeling Slighted

Angry over perceived favoritism toward Catholics, the province's pro-British majority has recently rioted, hoping to send a wake-up call.

October 07, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — When Carla Hart sends the children out the door of their row house on Cluan Place in a working-class part of East Belfast, she never knows what will fall from the skies. And it's not just the weather she's worried about.

Once, the homemaker said, she was struck on the head by a flying bolt. In July, her 9-year-old daughter was hit by a marble. But at least it didn't hit her 6-month-old in a nearby pram.

The inhabitants of the 22-house Protestant enclave say they regularly endure a cascade of bricks, bottles and even blast bombs from the other side of the towering barrier wall that separates them from their Roman Catholic neighbors. And when they summon police, she and her neighbors complain, the officers come late, if at all -- and then ask what they did to start it.

Hart moved to the street with her husband, William, three years ago, after the previous residents had been burned out.

"The Catholics are expanding," she said. "They wanted to take this street, and I did not want to give it up. So I said, 'No.' "

Like white Afrikaners in South Africa pressed to cede power to blacks at the end of apartheid, many of the 1 million Protestants in Northern Ireland see themselves as members of a lost and orphaned tribe, left to fend for themselves against an ascendant and more deft opponent.

The feeling remains despite the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which was meant to bring peace to British-ruled Northern Ireland and commit Protestants and Catholics to work together in one devolved government.

Proudly loyal to Britain and the queen, and maintaining a 55% majority in this province, the descendants of Scots and English who came to colonize Ireland in the 17th century cannot understand why British Prime Minister Tony Blair seems so hard on them while, in their eyes, pandering to the Irish Republican Army and its political ally Sinn Fein.

"The Catholics are getting everything they want, and we are getting nothing," said Hart, voicing a view widely held on the gritty streets of Protestant Belfast. The unionist community's anger flared into five days of riots last month whose intensity caught nearly everyone here by surprise, with Protestant protesters throwing projectiles and blast bombs, setting cars and stores alight and, in some cases, firing live ammunition at police vehicles.

The disturbances broke out at a time when an outsider might think that the unionist side should be most pleased.

After years of delay, the IRA in July formally renounced its military campaign to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic to the south and promised to turn in its stores of guns, ammunition and plastic explosives. Last week, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning certified that tons of IRA weapons and explosives had been put "beyond use."

But in a Protestant community long cynical about IRA concessions, the decommissioning was met with suspicion. The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, had wanted a public turnover of weapons, saying that the IRA deserved to wear "sackcloth and ashes" for its role in political violence over the last four decades that left 3,600 people dead.

Nothing of the kind happened, and even the commission said that it essentially had taken the word of the IRA that all the munitions had been turned in.

At a meeting Thursday with Blair, Paisley reiterated calls for what he termed "fairness and equality for the unionist community." In a 64-page document, Paisley listed a number of demands, including that Blair withdraw plans to totally dismantle the army's predominantly Protestant Royal Irish Regiment.

The province seems to have reverted to its old state of stalemate, with Protestant political leaders saying they will resist any calls to reinstitute joint governance with Sinn Fein. Last month's riots were also like a bad flashback -- to the 1960s, when the modern "troubles" began.

"I had to deal with 6-year-old kids rioting out there," said David McNarry of the Ulster Unionist Party, speaking of how disheartened his community was with the peace process.

"I doubt very much if there would be a majority again supporting a referendum [to endorse the Good Friday agreement] if it took place tomorrow. There certainly wouldn't be a majority of unionists.... Unionists see their British identity under threat."

"It wasn't about housing and it wasn't about jobs -- it was directly political and it was about the sense of alienation from that political process," agreed David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, a strong supporter of the 1998 agreement.

Brian Kingston, manager of the Shankill Mirror newspaper, which chronicled the recent disturbances, called them "disastrous" for the physical damage to the area. But some believe that they served as a wake-up call for Blair and his Northern Ireland office, he said.

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