News of riots in Belfast prompted familiar questions from perplexed observers. Why were loyalists attacking the forces of the Crown? Why were they so outraged that an Orange parade had been shifted a hundred yards? And what do unionists want? The scary answer is that they don't know.
One sign of the feelings of Ulster Protestants was a text message that did the rounds after Northern Ireland's 1-0 victory over David Beckham, Wayne Rooney et al: "Anglo-Irish Agreement? Downing Street Declaration? Good Friday Agreement? Payback time!"
There is a tendency among loyalists to feel lonely, unloved and conspired against. The weekend riots across working-class areas may have been sparked by an Orange parade, but they had an air of inevitability. For months loyalist paramilitaries have been busy, with the Ulster Defence Association purging Ian Paisley's North Antrim constituency of Catholics and the Ulster Volunteer Force cleaning up their former comrades in the Loyalist Volunteer Force: four LVF men have been murdered. Attempts by the police to arrest UVF suspects have ended in riots.
Last weekend the UVF and UDA provided guns for shooting and pipe and petrol bombs for throwing at the police and army. Those who actually did the shooting and throwing, the front-line soldiers of loyalism, were barely out of nappies when the terrorist organisations announced their ceasefires in 1994. They inhabit the "narrowest cultural and political arena in western Europe", according to Dr Peter Shirlow, a political geographer at the University of Ulster. They hold" an identity not based on introspection and questioning but based upon an imagination of fatalism, sectarian stereotyping and hate".
Shirlow's fieldwork on both sides of the sectarian divide in north and west Belfast shows that neither has any idea about the daily life of the other. He found that 73 per cent of young Protestants have never had a meaningful conversation with a Catholic contemporary. Evidence is emerging that …