* Disillusioned youths as young as 11 mainly behind riots
* Limited numbers mean few risks to 15-year-old peace
* Politicians powerless to stop damage to N.Irish reputation
* Protestants demographically and economically under
By Stephen Mangan
BELFAST, Jan 10 Northern Ireland's worst period
of violence since a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of
conflict has highlighted just how fragile that accord is and
raised fears that the province cannot fully emerge from its
Petrol bombs and guns returned to the streets of Belfast
after a vote by local councillors to end a century-old tradition
of flying Britain's flag from City Hall every day provoked
pro-British loyalists into riots that have raged for much of the
past five weeks.
For locals, it has stirred memories of the 30 years of
sectarian conflict that pitted Catholic nationalists seeking
union with Ireland against British security forces and mainly
Protestant loyalists determined to stay in the United Kingdom.
The police, who are the target of the latest disturbances,
say they have contained the unrest and with rioters unable to
muster numbers much larger than 200, the threat to the 15 years
of peace has so far been limited.
However business has been severely disrupted, Belfast's
improving reputation tarnished and some politicians worry that
they can no longer get through to those who feel they have no
place in a new Northern Ireland where they sense they are both
economically and demographically under pressure.
"The politicians have lost control," Danny Kennedy, a member
of the province's second largest pro-British party, the Ulster
Unionists, and a minister in Northern Ireland's devolved
government, told Reuters.
"Twenty years ago when the two leaders of Unionism issued a
statement appealing to loyalists to stay off the streets, they
would have been obeyed. It's a worrying factor and a new factor
in Loyalism - the constituency which says things have gone too
far and nobody is standing up for what we stand for."
That constituency is mainly made up of disillusioned teens
who, with faces covered by scarves and British flags draped over
their shoulders, pelted police with petrol bombs and fireworks
for much of the past week.
"NO FEAR OF ANYONE"
While police have accused pro-British militant groups of
exploiting the violence, the angry crowds have been dominated by
younger faces with the disturbances arranged via social media
sites like Facebook, much like riots in London in 2011.
Of the 107 people arrested since the trouble began at the
beginning of December, police said one third have been under the
age of 18 with an 11-year-old boy the youngest amongst them.
"The scary thing is, these kids aren't listening. For a lot
of them it's just fun, a game of cat and mouse with police which
is better entertainment than their Playstation," said Mark
Houston, director of the East Belfast Mission group that is
working with protesters to try and quell the unrest.
"They don't have any prospects, there's a hopelessness so
you've a lot people involved in recreational rioting, with
nobody really with the power to switch it off. They've no fear
of anyone and it isn't any one group doing it."
Houston, whose offices are based at the heart of the unrest
in protestant East Belfast, said one-in-four males under the age
of 16 in that area are functionally illiterate and come from
families where other generations have never been employed.
With jobs in areas such as technology replacing the once
reliable industrial employment offered in shipyards like Harland
and Wolff, which a century ago built the Titanic, uneducated
young people in East Belfast have few, if any, opportunities.
Community workers like Houston say a first meeting of the
new 'Unionist Forum' on Thursday, where politicians will meet to
seek to address the communities' issues, will help but is
unlikely to yield the quick fix needed at grassroots level.
Instead exasperated residents, who have seen militant Irish
nationalists become more active in recent years by killing three
police officers and two soldiers, may simply have to wait for
rioters to get bored of fighting with police, he said.
For nationalist politicians, whose communities have so far
mainly stayed on the sidelines with the exception of those
militant factions who attempted to kill a policeman with a car
bomb last month, a Unionist-led solution will not work.
Protestant protesters have complained that the removal of
the flag was a step too far in the ebbing of their dominance in
Gerry Kelly, policing spokesman for Sinn Fein, the former
political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), says the
decision to fly the flag on 17 specific days a year simply
brings Belfast in line with many other town halls in Northern
Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
"We can sort this out collectively but there has to be a
realisation that we're not just talking about one issue, we're
talking about a series," Kelly, who served 15 years in prison in
relation to a fatal bombing in the 1970s, told Reuters.
"We have a difficulty - it's the beginning of the year, the
marching season is ahead of us. Am I worried about it? Yes, I am
but I do think we have overcome bigger problems that this before
and we can do it again," said Kelly, whose party shares power in
the devolved government with its former Unionist foes.
Kelly was referring to the divisive summer marching season
when Protestant groups hold traditional parades that are seen as
provocative by Catholic nationalists and often turn violent.
Police were shot at and injured last year.
The differing views among politicians shows the lingering
division that makes governing its 1.8 million people a complex
affair as Northern Ireland, severed from the rest of the island
90 years ago as a Protestant-majority province, sees its
demographic balance tip toward Catholics.
Census data released last month showed that a majority of
Belfast's population is now Roman Catholic and experts predict
that Catholics could become a majority of the whole province's
voters within a generation.
However for most people on the streets of Northern Ireland,
who were looking forward to a year when the province plays host
to the G8 summit of world leaders, there is no will to return to
the bloody times that cost some 3,600 lives over three decades.
"The small numbers of people carrying on with violence and
attacks on police will never win," said Adrian Warren, 62, a
Protestant former government worker from south Belfast.
"Northern Ireland will never be a war zone again because the
ordinary, everyday people here want peace and want their
children and families to be safe. Bombs and guns are a thing of
the past and they've no place anymore."