There was news in today's newspapers of rioting over the last two nights in North Belfast. This has been a regular periodic occurrence by both loyalists and dissident republicans or even Sinn Fein Republicans over the last two decades. Historians, in fact, record that riots have occurred in Belfast on a regular basis since the 1830s when sectarian conflicts between established Protestant and newly-arrived Catholic workers in the linen industry led to ethnic riots. Than in the period of the first troubles (1912-23) coinciding with the mobilization of the Ulster Volunteer Force as a Protestant paramilitary force with establishment backing, World War I and the Dublin Easter Rising in 1916, the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23) there were riots in Belfast as well. During the second troubles (1968-2002) rioting by youths egged on by their paramilitary elders became a regular occurrence. It was a way of enjoying some craic (fun--not to be confused with that other crack) with one's mates while fighting the "orange bastards" or the "fenian bastards."
During the late 19th century industry in Belfast switched from the textile manufacturing to shipbuilding. Titanic was built in the Harland and Wolff shipyard before sinking in the ice fields of the North Atlantic off of Newfoundland. During the Home Rule crisis in 1912-14 Protestant workers violently forced Catholics out of the shipyards. Afterwards most Catholics preferred to go into other professions. In the late 20th century the Harland and Wolff shipyards drastically reduced the size of their workforce as the Royal Navy reduced its orders for ships and Asian shipyards became a cheaper alternative for building commercial vessels. This was one factor behind The Troubles as workers went on the dole and youths grew up spending their free time on the streets.
During the peace process of the 1990s and 2000s loyalists perceived that violence had paid off for the Republicans as the British government was in the process of appeasing them with power sharing, jobs, and European money for projects. They reasoned that if it worked for the Republicans it should also work for the loyalists. The youths were encouraged by figures in the paramilitary organizations who wanted to protest pressure on them to decommission their weapons, and the release of IRA figure Sean Kelly who had been returned to prison for violating his release conditions under the Good Friday Agreement. As it was, the worst rioting in decades occurred in East Belfast and North Belfast the week before the IRA decommissioned in September 2005.
Earlier this year rioting occurred in republican ghettos in which dissident republicans were said to have been involved. Riots create a good atmosphere in which to stage ambushes of police dealing with rioters. Both dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries are heavily involved in organized crime selling drugs, extorting protection money from legitimate businesses in their communities and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Rioting can be a way of showing that they are not purely criminal organizations, but are also dedicated to the "cause." In a way these riots can also be an attempt to deal with local and provincial governments as they deal with business--pay us or else.
Riots are also a symptom of the segregated existence that the two mainstream communities live in Northern Ireland. The city of Belfast and major towns like Derry are divided into a quilted patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods. Neighborhoods have been overwhelmingly of one ethnic flavor since loyalist mobs began driving Catholics out of mixed neighborhoods in Belfast in August 1969 and republican mobs retaliated against Protestants in Catholic neighborhoods. Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998--almost fifteen years ago--neighborhoods have grown even more segregated due to the violence that accompanied the peace process in the 1990s. A whole generation of working class youths has grown up without having met anyone of the other community. Schools have remained largely segregated with nationalists going to parochial schools run by the Church and unionists attending state schools. Only children of the middle and upper classes attend private integrated schools, and then usually only if their parents support either the nonsectarian Alliance Party or the moderate SDLP and UUP parties, which are themselves shrinking drastically. Unless mixed schools are introduced for the working class these ethnic riots will likely continue for another 150 years.