Leslie Johnston leaned on his front gate Saturday and shook his head.
He had just listened to a newscaster say that the 12th of July was passing as one of the most peaceful in memory.
The street in front of Johnston’s house, littered with bricks, and the homes on either side of his, their windows shattered, told another story. So did he.
“Anyone who says this is a peaceful 12th doesn’t live in Duncairn Gardens,” he said.
The decision by the Orange Order to keep its parades away from Catholic nationalist areas is widely credited with averting the kind of rioting and disruption that followed a disputed march last week in Portadown. Some were suggesting that the gesture by Orangemen had begun a new era, in which hardened positions could soften with compromise.
All was not completely quiet. The IRA, in a coded message, claimed responsibility for a gun and bomb attack Friday night that wounded five members of the security forces.
But the regular, tribal, almost mundane violence that breaks out in places like Duncairn Gardens suggests that the relative peace of this weekend was an anomaly and that Northern Ireland has miles to go before achieving anything remotely resembling normal society.
For 70 years, Leslie Johnston’s family has lived on Duncairn Gardens, the street that separates the nationalist New Lodge neighborhood from Tigers Bay, a fiercely loyalist enclave in North Belfast.
He believes that the gesture by the Orange Order to pull back this weekend means nothing in the long run.
“They just won’t leave it alone, both sides,” he said. “We’ve lived in this particular house for 23 years. Nothing has changed in that time. The only thing you can do in a situation like this is to separate people so they can’t hurt each other. The government came to us and asked us what we wanted. We told them a 30-foot fence. Look what they gave us.”
Johnston pointed across the street to an attractive, 10-foot brick wall, some of the sections broken up by panels of black wrought iron. Standing across from the tired brick town houses it is supposed to protect, the wall looks inconspicuously out of place, like something on the perimeter of a millionaire’s estate.
“That’s got to be the most expensive wall in Europe,” Johnston said. “It took them two years to build it.
And look at it.
It’s useless. Utterly useless.”
Indeed, rather than separate Tigers Bay and New Lodge, the year-old brick and wrought-iron wall gives the loyalists a higher stage from which to launch attacks on the New Lodge. Early Saturday, loyalists stood on top of the wall, hurling bricks. Johnston and his neighbors say the attacks went on for several hours before a gunman, presumably from the Irish Republican Army, appeared and opened fire.
“The boys jumped down from the wall and ran toward the gunfire,” Johnston said. “Belfast is the only place in the world where people run toward gunfire.”
Two loyalists, a 14-year-old and and an 18-year-old, were wounded by the gunfire, but police said the wounds did not appear to be life-threatening. But the rumors that swirled afterward were. By the time the story filtered down in loyalist circles, most people, and especially most Protestants, believed the teenagers were shot as they stood innocently around one of the bonfires that loyalists light to commemorate the anniversary of King William’s victory over Catholic forces in 1690. Leaders of the loyalist paramilitary groups, who say they want to contain violence, said they feared there would be retaliation.
The official police account, and news accounts, supported the view that the youths had been victims of a violation of paramilitary protocol, firing across one of the peace lines, the walls that separate Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhoods. The victims were portrayed as innocent.
But residents who live in the area disputed that account. Johnston has more credibility than most. He is Protestant, but lives on the Catholic side of the road.
“I get more trouble from my own,” he said, pointing to Tigers Bay. “This is a mixed area, this road. But we’re stuck between the two tribes.”
Johnston is frustrated, cynical, and resigned to the fact that New Lodge and Tigers Bay will attack each other, no matter how many compromises are made in the wider community.
“People think this only happens on the 12th. It might be worse now, but it happens all the time. In July, it’s the loyalists starting it up. In August, the republicans come out and do the same. They go at it, peace process or not. There’ll always be trouble here.”
So why stay?
Johnston indicated his 80-year-old mother in the background. His father, also in his 80s, sat in the living room. The old folks don’t want to move, can’t imagine leaving Duncairn Gardens.
But Duncairn Gardens has left them, Johnston said. And so he does his best. His windows are covered with wire. At night, he brings the garden hose in from the back, in case he needs to douse the fruits of a Molotov cocktail. When the IRA man opened up on the other side, Johnston flinched but didn’t get out of bed, knowing the direction of the shots. But, earlier Saturday, when someone on the loyalist side responded with small-handgun fire, Johnston, whose bedroom is in the front, flung himself out of bed, onto the floor.
“This is what you have to do,” he said, shrugging.
Duncairn Gardens, once a thriving shopping area, the busiest commercial stretch in North Belfast, is dying, consumed by the tribal hatreds that survive cease-fires, peace processes, and gestures like the Orangemen’s.
Half of Tigers Bay has moved out of Belfast, to northern suburbs like Rathcoole and Carrickfergus. But the loyalists will not cede the land to the burgeoning Catholic population. And so they return to Tigers Bay, to lob rocks and epithets over the porous fence separating the factions.
The government has told Johnston and other local residents that it put up the attractive brick wall, instead of a more utilitarian high corrugated iron fence, common in other parts of the city, because it wants to attract investors to the street, to return it to its past commercial glory.
Leslie Johnston shook his head at the thought.
“The place is gone,” he said, preparing for another night of tribal warfare, “and it’s never coming back.”