IF there are still people out there who think that all the past trouble and current political difficulties in Northern Ireland should be laid at the feet of Irish Republicanism, the weekend violence there should have served to amend their opinion. Eyewitness accounts and the judgement of the chief constable of Northern Ireland leave no doubt that considerable numbers of Ulster Protestants (why should they be dignified with the term “loyalists”?) used machine guns against the police, threw petrol bombs, started fires and generally caused mayhem that one experienced observer likened to Beirut at its worst.

The ostensible cause of the riots was the decision by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission to re-route an Orange Order (ie Protestant) march to prevent it from strutting its stuff along the Catholic Springfield Road area of west Belfast. The change involved less than 100 metres but it was enough to start rioting which spread to several other parts of Northern Ireland. The diversion served as a convenient excuse for violent protest against the changes that are slowly converting Northern Ireland from an exclusive Protestant enclave of the United Kingdom into a province where Catholics have equal rights and, under the Good Friday agreement, are entitled to participate in power–sharing. There is no question that the peace process which began more than a decade ago has shifted the balance of political and social advantage to the Republican/Catholic community and that this is at the root of Protestant anger. However, the shift has done no more than remove the outrageous advantages that the Protestants once insisted upon as their rights.

The immediate future is bleak. The leader of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland is the Catholic–hating Ian Paisley. Speaking about the march at the end of last week he said that re-routing it “could be the spark which kindles a fire there would be no putting out”. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy but the question is whether Mr Paisley did anything to restrain the extremists in his community. The answer is that he did not. The Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said yesterday about the Portestant leadership, “If I had said even a measure of some of their comments there would have been calls for my arrest”.