East Belfast Catholic enclave an island under siege again

By David McKittrick

As a district, Short Strand is literally stranded, a small island of green in a surrounding Orange ocean, the only sizeable Catholic enclave in predominantly Protestant east Belfast.

The west and north of the city have large Catholic areas, but Short Strand is cut off from the rest of Catholic Belfast by the River Lagan.

Although it is heavily outnumbered in religious terms, the district has attracted much resentment from some of the adjacent Protestants. The reasons go back into history: it sits close to the now almost defunct shipyard, symbol of the old Protestant industrial ascendancy.

The general area also has an additional religious significance in that it is one of the city's major traditional rallying points for Orange marches. Passing parades have often been a source of disorder, with rival allegations flying when trouble starts.

Another source of friction is that the local Catholic church, St Matthew's, occupies a prominent position on one of the main routes from the city centre into east Belfast. One resident said: "Our church offends them."

When it was founded in 1831 the congregation was small and community relations were goodbut as numbers grew relations deteriorated as Catholics came to be perceived as a threat.

Sectarian skirmishes developed, so much so that the army and police were often called.

In 1970 the church grounds were the scene of a major gun battle, with IRA members and invading loyalists exchanging gunfire, an event that allowed the IRA to claim a status as defenders of isolated Catholics.

That episode and others like it were meant to impress on loyalists that the Short Strand, though small, was not defenceless. That message was reinforced this week when shots were fired from the district, hitting two Protestant youths.

Over the years trouble has come on both major and minor scales. The church, meanwhile, has continued to function as a place of worship.

In March this year, loyalists splashed its frontage with red, white and blue paint.

The church itself illustrates the local siege mentality, declaring on its website: "Since it was consecrated in 1831 until the present day the parishioners have experienced generations of hardship and suffering, engaging in a continuous battle for survival against poverty, unemployment and sectarianism."

But while this week's rioting suggests that this cheerless continuum is being maintained, in some ways the narrative is changing.

Although the peace process has benefited Northern Ireland as a whole, neither Short Strand nor the adjacent Protestant districts have experienced a major peace dividend.

But Short Strand is a much more energetic place, socially and politically. The Lord Mayor of Belfast, for example, is a local Sinn Fein member, Niall O Donnghaile, elected last month aged just 25.

In the old days in east Belfast, Protestants used to call the shots, politically and economically. Now they just call the shots.

There is a dual isolation here: for Short Strand it is geographical, but for the loyalists it is political and thus goes much deeper.

LEADERS IN CALL FOR CALM

Politicians, police and community leaders in Northern Ireland were yesterday seeking to persuade loyalist paramilitaries to call off rioting which has broken out in east Belfast on two successive nights.

But extra police were on standby in case of a fresh outbreak of the disturbances which have seen the gun return to Belfast streets.

Three people, one a press photographer, have been shot and wounded as loyalists and Catholics clashed around the Catholic Short Strand area of the city, a traditional flashpoint where the communities meet.

Talks with the Ulster Volunteer Force, who police say started the trouble, may involve First Minister Peter Robinson, who said if people needed to have issues addressed he would meet them. He said the nights of rioting had caused "reputational damage" to the economy.

Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay described the shooting of the photographer as "an act with murderous intent" by dissident republicans. He added: "The bulk of this violence is coming from the loyalist community, and the UVF in east Belfast does have a role to play in that. They started this."

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said: "A small minority of individuals are clearly determined to destabilise our communities. They will not be allowed to drag us back to the past."

- Independent

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