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Northern Ireland: 'There's a lack of hope'

Riots and violent protests in Belfast this week have seen reinforcements being sent from Britain, but is this year's violence a return to the "bad old days" of the Troubles?

In the past week there have been violent protests in Belfast. The rioting was sparked by the annual marching season, when Protestants celebrate a 17th century victory over Catholic forces in Ireland. It's always a flashpoint for tensions between the two communities in the province, but this year, the violence has resulted in reinforcements being sent in from Britain. And the White House has expressed concern about the rioting too. DW talked to Alison Millar, a Northern Irish film director, who looked at the Orange parade culture in a 2011 documentary called "The Men Who Won't Stop Marching."

DW: Do you think that the riots represent a turn for the worse this year?

Alison Millar: I believe that this year and the past two years, there is a lot more frustration on the streets. An awful lot of young people, maybe 11 to 15, and even sometimes, sadly a lot younger, are out rioting, and it feels quite depressing out there.

A Loyalist protester gestures to the police in the Woodvale Road area of North Belfast, July 14, 2013, on the third night of unrest after an Orange Parade was blocked from marching past the Nationalist Ardoyne area. (Photo:REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

Police reinforcements were sent in this year from the UK to try and contain the violence

Do you think that's because of the economic crisis, and because many people, particularly young people, have no hope of getting jobs?

I certainly think in the Protestant community, there are no jobs, there's no work there, they feel their politicians have let them down. They feel there are a lot of jobs for the big boys who have gone into Stormont [The Northern Irish Assembly] and they feel that they, a working class community, especially Protestants, they feel that they have been completely left behind in the peace process.

There used to be manufacturing in some of these communities, like the Shankill Road [part of the Protestant part of West Belfast, and one of the hotspots of The Troubles] there were factories, there were things there, that's all gone. So I mean there's a lack of education, there's quite a lot of poverty, on both sides of the community, and I think, if they could just take the wall down, and look at each other, they'd be very similar.  I think the Catholic community has fought for education, and they are educated and they have been working very hard at going to University. But I think there's a huge issue with young Protestant boys, with education and dropping out of school, and no desire to go to school. It's very alarming.

Loyalist protesters confront the police in the Woodvale Road area of North Belfast, July 14, 2013, on the third night of unrest after an Orange Parade was blocked from marching past the Nationalist Ardoyne area. (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

The tensions are passed on from generation to generation 'like a burn'

The film you made a few years ago, [The Men who won't stop Marching] painted a very vivid picture of what it's like growing up in these poor communities in Northern Ireland.  Can you give our listeners an idea of what it's like growing up on these disadvantaged estates?

I think the most shocking thing for me, there's a lack of hope. Families are fragmented, because it's tough. They have a tough life, and live just day to day, putting x amount in the gas meter and maybe the five pounds they put in the gas meter, the other 10 pounds will go to buy drink. Because maybe alcohol is a way of numbing your pain, numbing your memories, blurring out the past. So that's self medication. It goes on, you can see that.

There's an awful lot of suicide on both sides of the wall. Horrific amounts of suicide in both the Loyalist [those loyal to the British Crown - Protestant] and Republican [those who want to join the Irish Republic - Catholic] communities, from both sides of the wall; in young males in particular. The diet's bad as well, kids will live on bits and pieces of junk food. They try and self medicate because there's nothing else. There's helplessness and hopelessness in these communities that the damage, the layers of damage from past generations involved in the Troubles has just passed down.  It's horrific and it just keeps going through the next generation, and the next generation, like a burn. But it just doesn't seem to get dealt with, which I can't understand.

Riot police watch flames of petrol bombs thrown by loyalists in North Belfast, Northern Ireland, early Saturday, July 13, 2013. (Photo: AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Younger and younger people are taking part in the riots and protests, many of them born long after 'The Troubles'

But behind the marching season is a determination in Northern Ireland, on the part of Protestants, that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK. And yet most people in mainland Britain, do not identify with them, or the marching season. There is a certain irony there?

I think that's very true. Someone once described Northern Ireland as the "last bric-a-brac of the British Empire". They are clinging on to some dream, some world that no longer exists. I think they are treading this strange line, in wanting to be more British than Britain is itself. I don't know why they don't move on. You might ask, well "are they more European" but I would say the answer is "No." They are clinging to Britain, the queen and stuff that is part of their identity. That is what they want to believe, and that is what they want to stick with.

Are there any initiatives between the two communities, where people are working together  in these flashpoint areas to try and move on?

There is an awful lot of groundwork. There are an awful lot of talks that do happen, behind the scenes, and I suppose they must find what happens at this time of year really frustrating too. There is a lot of good work that does go on. People who work really hard with kids, you hear them on the radio everyday. Community workers who take kids away and do lots of things with them. And then at this time of year, there is always something, just one flashpoint, and we are pitched straight back, just one thing is enough to set the whole thing off. I'd love to know what the answer is, most people would, but I don't really know what that could be.

I suppose the government doesn't really know the answer either?

We don't get much hope from it. I mean Peter Robinson [First Minister of Northern Ireland since 2008, and a member of the Democratic Unionist Party] was on talking yesterday, and Gerry Kelly [an Irish Republican politician and former volunteer with the Provisional IRA, Irish Republican Army, he played a big role in the "Good Friday" peace negotiations] was on talking yesterday, and they were both saying, "we must work together for this" "how do we resolve this?" and "The parades commission does exist, so we have to go by the ruling of that commission while it exists" but it's not working.

We are still having these horrific riots, every year, I mean really horrific, and that doesn't change. Why's it still happening? I mean, don't get me wrong, we are not in those horrific days of the seventies, where 400-500 people died between 1972 and 1974. We're not back there, but it's frightening when you think, something goes wrong, and maybe a kid gets shot, something goes wrong, it's just so frightening, so frightening. I think what is really worrying is that the younger generation do not remember personally the really bad days, so they think that there is something interesting about the police out in their riot gear, and it's not, for the older people, for the people like myself, it's just horrible, and sad.

Alison Millar is a Northern Irish documentary maker. In 2011, she made a film for BBC2's Wonderland series entitled The Men Who Won't Stop Marching. For that film, she spent a long time filming the Protestant community of the Shankill road and other deprived areas of Belfast.

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