N.Ireland residents fear return to darkest days after riots

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People in Northern Ireland voiced fears Wednesday that rising tensions between Catholics and Protestants were putting peace in the province at risk in the wake of fierce sectarian violence this week.

Masked youths pelted each other with stones and threw missiles at police during riots near a Catholic enclave of mainly Protestant east Belfast during two nights of rioting, in some of the province's worst sectarian clashes for years.

Several gunshots were fired and a photographer working for Britain's Press Association news agency was hit in the leg and needed hospital treatment. Police were out in force late Wednesday amid fears of fresh violence.

While Belfast is a city used to sectarian strife, the riots on Monday and Tuesday shocked even those who have lived through the province's 30 years of violence, known as the Troubles, which were largely ended by peace accords in 1998.

"It was very, very severe these last couple of nights," said Katrina Davison, a 53-year-old Catholic who has lived all her life in the area at the centre of this week's riots.

The Catholic enclave, called Short Strand, was targeted by a wave of missiles including petrol bombs and fireworks thrown by Protestants on the other side of the road, she said.

"Hand-to-hand combat" raged in the streets on Monday night and "children had to be taken out of their homes in their pyjamas," she added.

Police blamed pro-British paramilitaries the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for starting the riots but said the shots were fired by dissident republicans, who oppose the peace process and want the province to be part of Ireland.

Chantelle Stewart, a 21-year-old Protestant living in a rundown housing estate opposite Short Strand, feared Northern Ireland was returning to its darkest days.

"There haven't been gunshots in this road for years," she said as she pushed her nine-month daughter in a pram along Newtownards Road, which separates Short Strand from its Protestant neighbours.

"People just want peace.They want somewhere where it's quiet to live but it seems like it's going back to the 1970s at the moment."

The violence also overshadowed a piece of rare good news for the province -- the triumphant return home of Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy following his victory in the US Open last week.

Just hours after McIlroy arrived back in the province, riots erupted in Belfast several miles away from his hometown of Hollywood.

"Northern Ireland's place in the sun did not last long," lamented the Belfast Telegraph newspaper.

The riots left their mark on the area. Windows and doors in several houses on the road were freshly boarded up after being smashed and roads in the area were covered in broken glass and stones.

The religious divisions that continue to plague the British province are most apparent in such Belfast communities.

An ornate Catholic church marks the boundary of Short Strand, while the Union Jack -- the flag of the United Kingdom -- is hung up along Newtownards Road.

Northern Ireland's conflict pitted Protestants who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom against Catholics who wanted the province to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

Peace accords in 1998 largely brought an end to the sectarian strife but violence such as this week's riots still flares up occasionally.

While the peace accords have done much to bring the two sides together, with measures like the introduction of a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing administration, there are pockets in the province where divisions may never heal.

"We've been living like this for forty, fifty years," said Davison. "We'll never have peace here."

© 2011 AFP

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