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By Mark Noll


Belfast: Tense with Peace, Part 2

4. The major problems of the past summer, however, went well beyond ideological theater and persistent long-term difficulties in promoting equality between the two religious communities. On Monday, July 3, the British government announced the release from prison of Pvt. Lee Clegg, who had finished serving nearly four years of a sentence for murder. That night in Catholic areas of Belfast, Londonderry, and a few other towns, all hell broke loose. On the night of the third, 160 vehicles (cars, buses, trucks) were commandeered--usually by roving posses of masked men--and then torched. The same night, police stations reported being assaulted by 236 petrol bombs (milk bottles filled with gasoline, lit, then tossed). The next night, 12 more vehicles went up in flames, and 469 more petrol bombs were thrown at RUC fortifications. Numerous private properties were torched, including that of a major automobile dealer in Catholic West Belfast.

In a brief but telling commentary on the event, Belfast's Green Gate Dairy announced that it was expecting only a 60 percent return of its glass milk bottles (the rate is usually well above 90 percent). From previous experience, the dairy knew that some would be stolen for use as gasoline bombs and some pitched to keep them from being stolen for that purpose. With the flames by night came also a blitz of sloganeering by day. Clegg Out, All Out was the graffito that appeared like a weed in many Catholic communities.

Miraculously, this spasm of violence resulted in no fatalities and only minor injuries to police, bystanders, and perpetrators. Why did it occur?

Lee Clegg was a private in the British army serving time for the murder in 1991 of a Catholic teenager, Karen Reilly. No one disputed the facts of his case, only what they meant. Clegg had been on patrol at night when a speeding car approached his position and failed to heed warnings to stop. Following stipulated procedure, Clegg opened fire on the approaching vehicle. When it had passed ...

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