By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
It was shortly after midnight when I noticed Conor Keenan, PA to Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey, gently assisting a clearly intoxicated middle-aged man along the Mountpottinger Road.
He was helping him on his homeward journey towards Castlereagh Street, a loyalist area close by. Conor left him safely and returned to Belfast’s Short Strand to resume the leading role he was playing in defending the Short Strand community from serious attack by loyalists.
In fact, the drunken man emerged from the petrol-bomb-stone-throwing mob and asked for assistance to find his way home from those protecting the nationalist Short Strand/Ballymacarrett area.
This act of neighbourliness and generosity is typical of the people of the Strand and is exactly how they live out their lives and is symbolic of how they want to live with their Protestant and unionist neighbours.
That is how, despite occasional difficulties, the people of the Strand and the people in adjacent parts of unionist east Belfast have been living for years until Monday week ago.
As the date, June 27, approached, marking the 41st anniversary of the sustained attack on the Short Strand by unionist gunmen, the RUC and ‘B’ Specials, little did I know that I would find myself on vigilante duty as a 56-year-old, just as I did when I was a 15 year old.
On this occasion I was in the company of others of a similar age. Some had been with me when they too were 15 and in one instance a friend of mine had his twenty-plus-year-old son with him, protecting his family’s home, just as his father had done as a lad.
The peaceful co-existence and the largely harmonious relations in that part of Belfast were the result of years of hard work by people from the ranks of the IRA, the UDA, the UVF,the churches and the communities. The same people whose leaders negotiated the peace and gave us the Good Friday agreement and its political institutions and who a few months ago overwhelmingly voted again for the peace agreement by returning a DUP-Sinn Fein led executive.
What happened to the people of the Short Strand, and it cannot be said often enough, was that they were the target of a cynical, carefully-planned, organised and unprovoked attack by a number of individuals in the leadership of the east Belfast UVF who are not representative of that organisation’s leadership, regionally or locally.
The excuses which were used by loyalists for the attack were paper-thin, a veneer to cover up what might well be the emergence of the UYF’s version of the drug baron Johnny Adair. That speculation to one side, what is clear is that loyalists are being destabilised by a series of arrests carried out at the behest of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). Often, the information is coming from loyalist ‘supergrasses’.
No-one in any part of the political or police system should take peace for granted. The absence of electoral support for loyalists does not mean that they are unimportant or bit players in maintaining peace.
Their mandate is their support for the peace and political processes, the silence of their guns, the day-to-day work they are doing in their communities and the invaluable contribution they have made over many years to bring Irish society to this point. Drug dealing and criminality has to be effectively tackled. It is the job of the PSNI to eradicate this type of crime. There are no no-go areas for the police in pursuit of this objective.
The people of east Belfast do not want drug dealers masquerading as their “defenders”. Unchallenged, they will destroy their young people.
President Mary McAleese’s warm reception in this area on Tuesday. with Belfast’s Lord Mayor, Sinn Fein councillor Niall O Donnghaile, shows clearly that this community, despite those in it causing mayhem, still want to be part of the new politics.
The UVF leadership has to assert itself over those in East Belfast or elsewhere whose actions undermine peace.
For several days in the Short Strand we got a glimpse of the bad old days. They are a reminder of how volatile our peace is.
A reminder too that sinister forces are still at work.