A sudden, unilateral and large-scale loyalist terror attack on the tiny nationalist community of the Short Strand was bravely fended off this week in an act of courage reminiscent of previous generations of the nationalist struggle.
A three-pronged military-style invasion of the community by the UVF, with the apparent goal of expelling those nationalists who still live in the loyalist east of Belfast, was successfully resisted through the swift reaction of local residents.
Republicans from nearby areas also rushed to the scene to help defend the enclave, which has been an easy and frequent target for loyalist violence throughout the conflict.
Hand-to-hand fighting broke out between defenders and masked UVF paramilitaries, some of whom were dressed in black camouflage outfits and others dressed in full combat attire.
Residents reported seeing “a sea of black” through their windows as paint and petrol bombs thudded against their homes.
Amid a pitched battle, the homes of pensioners, many of them veterans of the famous 1970 siege in the same area, were engulfed in flames.
Loyalists also tried to burn down St Matthew’s church, which is situated at the edge of the enclave and which again became a centre for the area’s defence.
Determined resistance from local youths prevented the area from being overrun before sufficient numbers arrived from other areas, and eventually, the appearance of the PSNI.
British television broadcasters deliberately played down the siege. Short strand residents were infuriated to hear it described on television and radio reports as a minor incident and a “mini riot” by one BBC broadcaster. However, the situation changed as details of the situation emerged through the internet. Subsequent confirmation by the PSNI that the UVF had organised the attempted pogrom, as well as simultaneous attacks along other ‘peace lines’, now poses serious challenges for the Six-County administration at Stormont.
PSNI Assistant Chief Alistair Finlay said: “The UVF in East Belfast started this – there was no sense of anyone trying to finish that. Their hands are upon this, whether by direction, by omission or commission.”
But the PSNI was also criticised for largely abandoning the Short Strand to their fate on Monday night, despite warnings that the UVF had massed nearby in preparation for an assault.
Trouble continued on Tuesday night, with hundreds of loyalists again showering nationalists with bricks, bottles, fireworks and petrol bombs.
Outrageously, the PSNI at one point fired plastic bullets at nationalist defenders. And despite a large PSNI presence on the ground, at least one Short Strand family was forced to flee their home through a hail of missiles which included bottles, paint bombs, nuts, bolts and fireworks.
Little confidence remains in the Short Strand that the largely Protestant PSNI will provide an effective defence for their community. Over the two nights of violence, only one person has yet been arrested, in sharp contrast to incidences of disorder in republican areas.
Republicans are again preparing this evening [Wednesday] for a third night in defence of the enclave. In this regard, a PSNI attempt to link republican ‘dissidents’ to a gunshot which injured a press photographer on Tuesday night is being viewed as a likely propaganda exercise.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has appealed for calm. The new Mayor of Belfast and Short Strand resident Niall O Donnghaile dismissed suggestions his decision to remove two royal portraits from his office at Belfast city hall could have fuelled the violence.
He said there had been “a premeditated violent attack by over 100 masked UVF men on the community where I live.
“It is my clear view that the PSNI could and should have responded better. And I think with the power of hindsight senior officers may well agree with this view.”
He said he had been participating in a number of high-level political meetings to deal with the crisis.
“But this issue will not be resolved unless there is a very direct challenge put up to those responsible for initiating last night’s incidents – namely the UVF.
“There is a perception that unionist political leaders are not willing to address the very serious problem that the UVF is now posing to the everyday lives of citizens in Belfast.
“It is no good for us simply to clean up the mess left behind by actions like last night. We all know where the problem lies and there is a particular onus on political and civic unionism to intervene and address them.”
Prominent republicans have warned the UVF appeared set on reigniting conflict and sectarian tension. Former IRA leader Billy McKee, who fought an eight-hour gun battle with loyalists in the nationalist enclave in 1970, expressed solidarity with those defending the Short Strand.
Now aged 89, the Provisional IRA hero said he was sorry he could not travel to the area to support residents, as many older citizens did. He apologised that due to his frail state he couldn’t be there with them, but said he was praying for them and urged those who could to continue to defend the area if necessary.
Politically, the sudden outburst of UVF activity has come as a shock to the Dublin and London governments and has sharply conflicted with the normalisation process. In the near term, it has also overturned widespread expectations of a quiet summer marching season.
eirigi linked the violence to dissatisfaction within the UVF over the investigation of its senior members by the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team for sectarian murders carried out over the last 40 years.
“Nationalists are sick, sore and tired of the fact that every time there are difficulties within unionism, this manifests itself in violent sectarian attacks,” eirígí national vice-chairperson Rab Jackson.
“Ultimately, what we witnessed last night was the cranking up of a unionist mob – at the behest of the UVF – that simply doesn’t want a Catholic about the place in east Belfast.
“The attack on the Short Strand is also an indicator of the total failure of what is called the peace process and those who police it to protect nationalists in vulnerable areas.”
Jackson commended the people of the Short Strand for their bravery in confronting the UVF and eventually forcing them from the area.
“The Short Strand community has a long and proud history of defending their area from British and unionist aggression, éirígí is confident that the current generation of residents will be no less determined.”
Republican Sinn Féin said “the fact that the RUC/PSNI stood idly” had come as no surprise.”
“Those who tell our people that the Orange State has gone and that British rule is nearing an end or that equality and peace reign need to draw back the curtains from their Stormont offices and tell the people the truth.
“Republican Sinn Féin calls on all nationalists to be very careful and vigilant in the run up to the marching season.”
Meetings between government officials and community representatives in east Belfast are continuing this [Wednesday] evening in an attempt to avert further trouble.