N. Ireland protests test a fragile peace

Updated 14 December 2012
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N. Ireland protests test a fragile peace

NIGHTS of rioting, petrol bombs, arson attacks and tense standoffs between pro-British protesters and the police have brought the lingering sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland into sharp focus.
The streets of the British province have been hit by protests every night since Dec. 3, when Belfast’s council enraged Protestant loyalists by ruling that the British flag should no longer fly year-round at City Hall.
Since then, rioters have set lawmakers’ offices ablaze and and thrown a petrol bomb at a policewoman in her car in the worst incidents, while at least four politicians have received death threats.
Police say loyalist paramilitaries are behind some of the violence, raising tensions with republicans — mainly Catholics — who favor a unified Ireland.
While politicians dismiss suggestions that the violence threatens the peace process put in place in 1998, the scenes of rioting are reminiscent of the dark days of the conflict in the British province.
On Wednesday night, wrapped up against the cold in giant British flags, grim-faced loyalists again faced lines of police clad in riot gear in several parts of Belfast.
The protests appear to be reducing in size, but the loyalists are fiercely defensive of their British identity and have vowed to return every night until the Union Jack flies again above City Hall.
“It’s in our blood, that flag,” said one protester, who refused to give her name as she stood with some 40 others blockading the loyalist stronghold of Shankill Road in west Belfast. “Our forefathers died for it. We’re not going to stop until our flag’s back up. We’ll protest till doomsday,” she told AFP.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has joined Northern Irish leaders in condemning those protesters who have turned to violence, saying “in no way are these people being loyal or standing up for Britishness.”
Many Belfast residents complain that the protesters are a small minority who refuse to accept a decision made by a democratically-elected council. They say the disruption is damaging trade in the pre-Christmas period.
For republicans, the British flag cannot stay hanging over a council that is no longer controlled by loyalist parties. But while loyalists have sparked the latest violence, minorities in the republican community are also seeking to disturb the fragile peace.
Dissident republicans from the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA groups murdered two soldiers and a policeman in 2009. The harsh truth for Protestants is that population shifts are working against them — census results published this week show they have lost their absolute majority in Northern Ireland.
While the number of Protestants has declined in a decade from 53 percent to 48 percent in 2011, the Catholic population has grown to 45 percent.
Belfast itself is now almost equally divided between Protestants and Catholics, a fact reflected in the hung city council which voted to remove the British flag for all but 17 days of the year. “They’re scumbags,” one Catholic taxi driver said of the flag protesters. “They think they rule this city. And they did back when we were second-class citizens, but not any more.”
In Belfast, the murals dotted around Protestant and Catholic working class neighborhoods are a stark reminder that divisions still run deep.
“We have a highly divided society where people live in either Protestant areas or Catholic areas, and where the public space is still competed over,” said Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. “I think it’s fair to say that working-class Protestant areas feel they have gained the least from the peace process.”
Loyalists in these neighborhoods say tensions have been building for years with the republicans, who they feel have gained too much political power at their expense. For them, the City Hall flag was simply the final straw. “They’ve been chipping away at our Britishness for years,” loyalist activist Jim Wilson told AFP.
Billy Hutchinson, leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, added that there was “a lot of social isolation and high levels of unemployment” among the Protestant youths who have rioted in recent days.
He urged protesters not to resort to violence, but said the onus was on republicans in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government to stop eroding loyalists’ identity. “They feel that they’ve no stake in this society and they feel that their Britishness has been driven away,” he said.


American jailed in Venezuela for 2 years arrives in US

Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and Mormon missionary, is pictured in this still image taken from a selfie video which he posted on Facebook during a riot at the Helicoide detention center in Caracas, Venezuela, obtained by Reuters May 16, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 27 May 2018
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American jailed in Venezuela for 2 years arrives in US

  • The Trump administration has threatened crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela
  • Their release came one day after an influential US senator held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President

WASHINGTON: Joshua Holt, who traveled to Venezuela from Utah in 2016 to marry a Spanish-speaking Mormon woman but soon found himself jailed and later branded the CIA’s top spy in Latin America, was set free by the anti-American Maduro government on Saturday in what his family called “this miracle.”
Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, arrived Saturday evening at Washington Dulles International Airport. In video tweeted by the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, the couple enter a room to be greeted by the Utah Republican before a hug-filled and tearful reunion with his parents, Laurie and Jason Holt.
When he departed the Caracas airport earlier in the day, Holt told The Associated Press that the ordeal had left him “exhausted.”
Their release came one day after an influential US senator held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who the Trump administration says runs a “dictatorship” and just won re-election in a “sham” vote.
Months of secret, backchannel talks between an aide to Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and close allies of Maduro preceded their return. Yet Holt’s release had seemed unlikely even a week ago.
President Donald Trump, in a tweet, described Holt as a “hostage” and said he expected to host Holt and his family at the White House on Saturday evening. “Good news about the release,” he wrote. The US contended Holt was held on trumped up charges.
The White House learned from Corker, R-Tennessee, on Friday of Holt’s impending release, according to a US official who has closely followed Holt’s plight and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
Holt and his wife were reunited at the Caracas airport with her daughter from a previous relationship, and all three boarded a chartered flight to Washington. “We are on our way home,” Corker tweeted.
Venezuela’s communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, said their release was a goodwill gesture that followed months of dialogue between the Maduro government and US lawmakers.
“We’re praying that this type of gesture ... will allow us to strengthen what we’ve always sought: dialogue, harmony, respect for our independence and respect for our sovereignty,” he said.
Holt, now 26, set out for the South American country in June 2016 to marry a woman he met online while he was looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons who could help him improve his Spanish. He had planned to spend several months in Caracas that summer with his new wife and her two daughters, to secure their visas so they could move with him to the US
Instead, the couple was arrested that June 30 at her family’s apartment in a government housing complex on the outskirts of Caracas. Authorities accused him of stockpiling an assault rifle and grenades, and suggested that his case was linked to other unspecified US attempts to undermine Maduro’s rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.
They were held in a notorious Caracas prison, run by the secret police, that also is home to dozens of top Maduro opponents jailed during the past few years of political unrest in the country. Their trial was set to begin this month after repeated delays that led the Trump administration to question the motives for his detention.
Until Trump’s tweet on Saturday, the US had stopped short of publicly calling Holt a “hostage.”
Holt’s release looked unlikely a week ago, when he appeared in a clandestinely shot video railing against the Maduro government and saying his life was threatened in a prison riot. In retaliation, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Maduro ally, said on state television that Holt was the CIA’s top spy in Latin America.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., spoke to Trump at length Friday night and later said the couple’s release “will in no way change US policy toward the dictatorship in Venezuela.”
The Trump administration has threatened crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela for Maduro’s decision to go forward with the presidential election last week.
The US government at first avoided ratcheting up public pressure on Venezuela in light of their already strained relations, but eventually raised Holt’s case with the highest levels of the Venezuelan government and decried his treatment in prison.
Corker was seen live on state TV on Friday shaking hands with Maduro and being greeted by first lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. Corker left an hour later; neither the senator nor the president made any statements.
Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, said her son and his wife were wrongly accused. She worked feverishly to bring attention to her son’s incarceration, hosting rallies, fundraisers and doing media interviews.
Laurie Holt said her son has suffered numerous health problems in jail, including kidney stones and respiratory problems. He was depressed and at one point lost so much weight that he dropped several pant sizes, she said.
In their statement, the Holt family said, “We thank you for your collaboration during this time of anguish. We ask that you allow us to meet with our son and his wife before giving any interviews and statements. We are grateful to all who participated in this miracle.”