The violence of the last few days in Northern Ireland has been in marked contrast to the earlier part of this year's marching season. The Drumcree march and many other marches passed off peacefully, or largely peacefully. Now, however, we have again seen people out on the streets rioting, we have seen police officers and members of the public injured, and we have seen shotguns, blast bombs, petrol bombs, bricks and other missiles thrown across communities and at the police. We have seen again the use of baton rounds and water cannon.
The scenes of destruction evoke the memories of years gone by. There were reports not only of hooded, masked men engaging in violence but also of small children on top of the shops at Ardoyne, a traditional location for hurling down missiles on anyone below. This violence, though, is on a smaller scale, looks very clearly orchestrated and bears the marks of dissident republicanism.
Great work has been done again this year. There have been 2,423 marches in Northern Ireland so far: 603 of them took place yesterday. There are a further 856 marches to come: 841 will have taken place by 31 August. Marching is certainly still a strong part of the culture. Some 65% of our marches are unionist and loyalist and 3% are republican and nationalist. The remaining 32% are motor cavalcades, girl guides on parade, and so on.
While the Orange Order talks of Orangefest and there are portrayals of the marching season – and particularly the Twelfth – as a community festival, that is not the experience of the whole community. The Orange Order celebrates the victory of Protestant William of Orange over Catholic King James at the battle of the Boyne, and does not permit Catholics to belong to the order. For many, the marches are times when they are constrained from moving freely around their local area, when roads are closed, tension rises, and there is the fear of attacks on people and property.
The marches are preceded by bonfires on the 11th night – enormous fires, one of which this year destroyed a family home and put others in jeopardy. On the top of these great bonfires, built very often of wooden pallets and old tyres (an environmental disaster), with any old rubbish thrown on them, can be seen the Irish national flag, the Tricolour, and even nationalist and republican election posters which have been carefully kept for the Twelfth bonfire.
The bonfires are not a safe place – every year people are seriously injured, and because the bonfires are built on roads and car parks there is damage to the infrastructure. At a time of financial stringency tens of thousands of pounds will be spent on repairing this damage.
There have been more sinister events recently. A very serious bomb attack on a young Catholic police officer, a landmine explosion in South Armagh, and the discovery of several dissident republican bombs have caused great concern. The memory of the Omagh bomb and the deaths of 29 people and two unborn children are still fresh in our minds, 12 years on. There is fear that dissident republicans will kill a police officer or succeed in setting off another bomb.
The combination of rioting, attacks on police and occasional bombs marks a very real deterioration in the security situation, and has the capacity to further delay our return to greater stability and economic development.
Notwithstanding the violence of the past few days, it remains the case that the majority of our people are committed to peace. They do not want a return to terror and destruction. The challenge for everyone is to build the shared future which will ensure that never again will paramilitary violence destroy lives.
Nuala O'Loan, first police ombudsman between 1999 and 2007.