I've just walked through a riot. Ok, a riot in waiting. I always thought riots were moments of collective spontaneous combustion - a spark of anger / frustration / thuggery / protest - flared by a collective calamatous conscious of intent. But today in Belfast, I saw that in fact it is a premeditated, organised, cautious stand-off gone wrong (or gone right, depending which side of the barricade you are on.)
A riot in waiting. The calm before the storm. The build-up before the explosion.
For weeks I've been watching the cowardly covered faces of youths who know nothing to the life we used to live in 'the old days' - spurred by the 'craic' of the riot rather than a passion for politics. Night after recent night I've watched the news with sadness, disappointment and a little shame that once again the streets I grew up in are being burned by petrol bombs and battered by bricks.
When I come up to look after my mum, I am more emmersed in the news, I shake my head in disgust at these overgrown children acting like violent petulant toddlers throwing a tantrum.
So I'm on my way to get the train back to Dublin, desperate to see my girls. My dad has driven me but I'm keen for him to get home quickly to mum, she can't be left alone for long. So when we see a big crowd loitering (they only loiter with intent in Belfast) I immediately tell Dad to stop. I'll walk the mile or so to go, he needs to get back to mum.
It was only when I got nearer, I realised the crowd was dense and deadly silent. Why oh why am I dragging my daughter's luminous pink wheelie case? I realise a few of them have balaclavas and scarves over their faces. The side streets have shadows, and small piles of bricks.
Everyone is quiet. There is no noise, apart from the flock of helicopters overhead. Just people watching being watched. Because as I drag my silly fiscia case through the crowd, my heart sinks (further). The road up ahead is blocked by a police barricade of officers dressed in full riot gear, and about 20 riot vans. Behind them half a mile away is the train station. There was no way through.
Do I agree with the protestors? I honestly don't know. I'm protestant but consider myself Irish. Northern Ireland is half catholic/half Irish and so I can understand why flying the Union Jack all the time upsets them. And I understand why taking it down upsets the unionists. If I had my way, I would remove all flags - apart from religion they have caused more death and destruction than anything else in history.
Anyway, regardless of what I think, any sympathy I might have had went up in the first whiff of smoke from a petrol bomb.
So I drag my bright pink children's wheelie case through the quiet, dense crowd. I avoid a balaclava and speak to a face. How might I get to the train station? He nods to the baricade, and suggests I ask. Oh. Ok then. Sounds like a plan. I realise everyone is calm (except me). Smiling even. Just waiting.
So I drag my pink case to the line of riot police and peer into a black visor. Both sides of the barricade use a facial cover to protect them from the other. What a weird world we live in. What a bizare way to spend your Saturday afternoon.
I point pathetically to my pinkness, and nod to the train station. He nods back and steps aside. I walk through this army of black and plastic shields, past the armour plated vans, and onto an empty main road. I walk as fast as I can (OK, I ran) until I was away enough to look back. yep. They're all still there. Waiting for the riot.
I'm at the station now. My train's delayed due to a security alert - just like the 'good ol' days'. Except they weren't that good. No matter how things change, sometimes they stay the same.