LONG, long before today's Belfast rioters were born, I was reporting on a riot in precisely those very same mean streets. They were a lot meaner then, as indeed were the rioters, who regarded journalists as treacherous mongrels, begotten by the Pope out of Republican Whoredom. So I naturally attempted to look Staunchly Protestant, with the Reformed blood of the Boyne boiling in my Orange arteries, while waves of rioters spent their apparently inexhaustible ferocity upon the Welsh Guards. At one point, a snatch-squad made a vain attempt to grab a rioter, and ended up, exhausted and culpritless, standing beside me.
A middle-aged man hobbled out of his terraced house and knocked metallically on his thigh. "See you f#*+ing Welsh bastards? See this f#*+ing leg here? I lost this f#*+ing fighting for the f#*+ing Crown at Arnhem, so I did."
"Well you ought to 'ave more f#*+ing sense then, didn't you," wheezed the sergeant in mellifluous Swansea, before rejoining his embattled platoon.
The figure of Ian Paisley suddenly arrived, having descended from The Right hand of God, which was his favoured residence, while I assumed a terracotta-hue and shimmered with chameleon-invisibility into the melancholy Belfast brickwork.
"Dr Paisley, sir, see them there Welsh Bs, they were abusing me, so they were," cried the war hero. "One even used the f-word at me and all."
"What?" Paisley thundered (the standard form of speech of He Who Descends From The Right Hand Of God). "Hurling obscenities at the loyal folk of Ballymacarrett, while republican scum skulk in their papist dens in Short Strand. A Scandal and an Outrage!"
"That's not all he done, so it isn't." improvised the veteran suddenly. "When I said I'd lost this here leg at Arnhem," – he tapped again: rat-a-tat – "this here Welshman said if I wasn't effing careful – 'scuse the language, Doctor – that I'd lose the second leg in Belfast."
Paisley grew huge, like a dog-collared toad on a lily pad. "HE SAID WHAT?
Next day, Paisley rose in Stormont, if such upward verticality is compatible with a simultaneous descent from The Right Hand of God. "Mr Speaker, sir, I have a grave complaint to make about the conduct of the Welsh Guards in East Belfast last night," he rumbled, as if he were Thor clearing his throat before smiting a fjord full of Papist Trolls. He then related how this gallant veteran of Arnhem had endured a torrent of unspeakable obscenities, before being threatened with the amputation of his one remaining loyal leg.
Stormont convulsed in horror. Loyalist MPs went white-faced with wrath, and the headline story that
day – which I duly repeated – abjectly and undissentingly – was of this Ulster war hero being abused by the IRA-loving Welsh Guards.
There you have it in one, the dysfunctional organism that is Northern Ireland: a grievance of some kind leads to a riot, a synthetic-grievance is therein manufactured, politicians become indignant over the imaginary, and the media dutifully report upon it all as if reality lay within this hall of angry, tribal mirrors. And so it continues today, this time over the flags issue. From the outset, this was a manufactured disagreement, for Sinn Fein must have always known they were goading insecure loyalists beyond all endurance by removing the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall. But that, of course, was the point. No doubt they could point to some recent unionist injustice: and if not recent, why, in the vast pedigree available: gerrymandering, Burntollet, the B-Specials, Cromwell.
To switch metaphors, the two extremes are now like spoilt children on the back seat of a car, pinching one another on the long journey to their summer holidays: but instead of the adults in the front (Dublin and London) slapping the brats very hard, before returning home and putting them on a bread and water diet in a wet dungeon, they have, at different times, indulged them equally, or favoured one over the other, and sometimes, incredibly, a bit of both. God help us, they even got the Americans to share the brats' pain.
And now, after weeks of rioting, the PSNI must be close to breaking point, with the successors to the Welsh Guards preparing to take their place on the streets of Belfast. No doubt the heir to the legless one is ready with his tale, while invisibly amid the ochre molecules of the Ballymacarrett brickwork, another callow young journalist is waiting to perform his wretched part in this grisly cycle.
Grievance is what Northern Ireland thrives on. If no natural grievance naturally exists, why then, exude one from a special grievance gland.
And better still, both sides know that if they complain loudly enough, London and Dublin will still listen sympathetically. London, of course, will continue meekly to subsidise Sinn Fein's vindictive if lawful triumphalism, just it will still supply the dole to loyalists before they report for riot-duty on the Newtownards Road.
Nearby, the Titanic Project, similarly subsidised by the English taxpayer, sails on towards a manmade iceberg that was shaped from the frozen waters of Ulster's many grievances, long long ago.