Less than a month after President Barack Obama cited the Northern Irish peace agreement as a model for peace in the Syrian civil war, Northern Ireland itself exploded into some of the worst violence in recent years.
The clashes took place after police enforced a ban on Orange Order parades in Catholic areas of Belfast. Supporters of the loyalist parades say they are an important part of Northern Ireland’s Protestant heritage, while critics call them openly triumphalist and anti-Catholic.
For three nights, loyalist mobs wreaked havoc in highly contested parts of the city. Youths battled armored cars, burned Irish flags, and hurled a variety of missiles at police, including bottles, petrol bombs, billiard balls and furniture.
Forty-four police officers were injured in the violence; MP Nigel Dodds was hit in the head by a brick and had to be taken to hospital. The riots calmed down when Orange Order leaders called for peace, some say belatedly.
The chaotic scenes were worlds away from the tone Obama struck in his speech at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland one month ago.
While the summit focused mostly on the Syrian Civil War and tax evasion, Obama used its location to praise Northern Ireland’s youth, citing it as a “blueprint” for peace and reconciliation.
“You set an example for those who seek a peace of their own,” Obama said to a room filled with teenagers.
He referenced those in the world struggling with sectarianism, saying, “they’re wondering, perhaps if Northern Ireland can achieve peace, we can, too. You’re their blueprint to follow. You’re their proof of what is possible — because hope is contagious. They’re watching to see what you do next.”
Patterson Henry, a professor of politics at the University of Ulster, told TheDC “Obama’s visit had absolutely no effects or influence on loyalist/nationalist tensions,” noting, however, that the unrest poses “no fundamental threat” to Northern Ireland’s mixed government.
Sammy Weir, a civil servant living in Belfast, agreed Obama’s presence did not smooth tensions.
“President Obama’s visit wouldn’t have made a difference to what happened,” he said.
However, some believe the visit did have a positive impact overall.
“The images in the media of our local political leaders standing side by side to welcome President Obama serves to ease local tensions,” said Ray Casserly, the director of a study abroad program in Belfast.
While it’s true Northern Ireland has improved noticeable since the Good Friday agreement ended the Troubles in 1998, the situation remains uneasy. The mostly loyalist Protestants are worried about losing their demographic edge as Catholics slowly begin to outnumber them.
The divisive nature of the ongoing conflict was illustrated by the tense run-up to the Orange Order’s July 12 parade this year. In a chilling example, an effigy of a popular Catholic priest who had recently committed suicide was hanged from one of the parade’s trademark tire bonfires:
Popular west Belfast priest Fr Matt Wallace died recently by suicide. Loyalists burn him in effigy. This is culture? pic.twitter.com/2GPvGb0ofR
— Shane (@LOcculta) July 12, 2013