McIlroy euphoria dampened by Belfast violence

After the euphoria over Rory McIlroy's US Open triumph, the images of renewed violence on the streets of East Belfast seemed all the more depressing.

The Assembly started its proceedings on Tuesday with a discussion of the trouble.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey spoke of the need for leadership, and by and large MLAs showed it.

They were measured in their contributions, careful not to stir further tension.

The DUP's Sammy Douglas, for many years a community worker in the area, said the vicious rioting had been some of the worst witnessed since 1969, and he quoted a passage from the Book of Proverbs "hope deferred maketh the heart sink" to encapsulate the feelings of the majority.

If the MLAs tried to put on a display of unity, that didn't resolve the clashing explanations of how the rioting began.

Alex Maskey made no bones about it, maintaining "there was a UVF related attack on the Short Strand community last night".

On the BBC airwaves some Protestants have angrily disputed that version, pointing instead to prior incidents of sectarian attacks on their properties.

Unless you happen to be hovering above an area in a helicopter at the precise moment violence begins, it's often hard to disentangle which side threw the first projectile.

In years covering riots, I have yet to interview a resident or community worker the next morning who admits "yes it was our side that started it".

Although it's clear that innocent people on both sides were hurt, there are strong indications that the East Belfast UVF played a big role in the earliest clashes on the Mountpottinger Road in the nationalist Short Strand.

In the assembly, no unionist representative stepped forward to refute Alex Maskey's claim - a reminder that with the decline of the Progressive Unionists, the UVF no longer has Stormont representation.

These clashes come after the demise of the PUP (whose former leader Brian Ervine failed to follow in the footsteps of his late brother David in the May Assembly elections).

They also come in the wake of a Police Historical Enquiries Team investigation which appears to be on the verge of triggering the arrest of a swathe of UVF leaders.

One explanation is that the UVF, long unhappy about what it sees as a bias in the HET's focus, is sending a warning shot to both the police and the government.

Another sign of a UVF resurgence is the re-appearance of more overtly militaristic murals in the area.

That said some I have spoken to in East Belfast warn that it's inaccurate to portray the violence as a direct response from the UVF leadership.

Instead they point to tensions between the paramilitary leadership in East Belfast and the commanders based on the Shankill Road in the west of the city.

This interpretation points to the loss of authority of the UVF leadership in the wake of last year's murder of Bobby Moffett, which it is widely believed to have sanctioned.

Gun battle

The UVF in East Belfast, it is argued, is flexing its muscles.

Once the pandora's box of sectarian violence is opened it's hard to get the lid back on - and from the accounts this morning many people on both sides have reason to feel aggrieved.

Questions will be asked about who fired the shots late on in the disturbances.

Weren't the IRA and UVF guns meant to have been decommissioned? And if not them, then who?

The incident has some echoes of the gun battle around St Matthew's church in 1970 which is part of East Belfast troubles folk lore.

Thankfully, unlike the 1970 incident which claimed three lives, last night's shooting resulted only in injuries.

Although some of the reasons for the violence may be local and specific, once images of petrol bombs and police in riot gear hit the web, they can be viewed across the world.

Painstaking work on lowering Northern Ireland's rate of corporation tax or waiving air passenger duty can be undone in a few seconds as a potential tourist or foreign investor mentally chalks Northern Ireland off their destination list.

Let us hope the police, politicians and community workers can get to grips with these tensions before a pattern is set for the summer.