Age of reason: youths in the Ardoyne area during last week's riots

To mainstream Irish politicians and the overwhelming majority of society, the rioters on Ardoyne's streets were morons and miscreants, manipulated by dissident republicans for their own sinister ends.

The message was that the North had hit a new low. Children, who should have long been in bed, hurling bricks, bottles and petrol bombs at the PSNI. A gunman also reportedly fired at police. Even Sinn Féin reacted with disgust.

But in working-class nationalist areas, and particularly Ardoyne, disapproval isn't universal. "I fully identify with the youth and their actions," says Martin Óg Meehan. "All this 'shock and horror' surprises me.

"There have been hundreds of riots in Ardoyne over the years, and thousands of local teenagers have rioted. I was rioting myself from the age of 12. When I was 16, I was arrested for hijacking a bus and sentenced to three years in St Pat's home.

"I rioted to defend the area against RUC and British Army invasions. These young lads were defending Ardoyne against a PSNI invasion. Over 100 police Land Rovers with four water cannons, plastic bullet guns and riot gear arrived to force an Orange parade through. What did they expect, a welcoming party?"

Ardoyne's long, hilly streets have always been staunchly republican. But recently there's been an attempt to transform the image. Last month, a positive, non-political wall mural was unveiled by President Mary McAleese. "Fáilte go Ard Eoin ... a confident, colourful, creative community," it declares. The rioters set a van on fire in front of the mural.

Twenty-one police were reportedly injured as were 10 residents who said they were hit by plastic bullets. A 17-year-old defended his decision to riot: "The Orangemen aren't wanted here. If we tried to march past the Shankill, we'd be shot dead." The PSNI blocked off the main entrance to Ardoyne last Monday. Local shops closed. Another rioter said: "We were put under curfew to let a shower of bigots through." Orange demonstrations are particularly inflammatory because previous marchers passing Ardoyne – which suffered many sectarian killings – have carried banners honouring UVF members Sam Rockett and William Hanna.

A woman condemning the rioters adds: "I don't justify what they did but could you imagine the reaction if we paraded past loyalist areas with banners honouring Thomas Begley [the Shankill bomber]?"

Meehan claims that while "an anti-social element became involved", most rioters reflected the general mood. Meehan (41), son of the legendary IRA commander, served 12 years' imprisonment for IRA offences. He left Sinn Féin in 2007 and is now a member of the Republican Network for Unity. He says the rioting shows working-class republican disillusionment with Sinn Féin's political progress: "People expected things to improve post-Belfast agreement ? I certainly did. But there's been no peace dividend for these areas and Sinn Féin can't explain why."

Rioting from an early age

Around 6,000 people live in Ardoyne. "More than 500 residents went to jail, and 99 were killed during the war. We've seen no improvement in terms of jobs or housing. We have extreme over-crowding. There's ample vacant land in north Belfast but unionists want to contain the Catholic population so there's a de facto 'Orange line' where houses can't be built.

"Ardoyne has a massive under-25 population, but no soccer or Gaelic pitch, or leisure centre. The Shankill and Ballysillan (neighbouring loyalist areas) have leisure centres. But if we went up there for a swim, it would be like Jaws – there'd be nothing left of us."

Meehan claimed the 2001 Holy Cross protest had scarred local youth: "Many of the rioters would have seen their wee sisters walk to school amidst a hail of loyalist physical and verbal abuse. That has influenced their attitudes."

Brendan Shannon, an ex-IRA prisoner from west Belfast, was in Ardoyne "to support the residents". He says while politics is involved, the "excitement of a riot for young people" can't be under-estimated: "I started rioting at 14. My da, like everybody else's, said he didn't want me rioting but, in his heart, he expected me to. Had I stayed at home, he'd have thought me a wimp."

Sinn Féin representatives said it was extremely fortunate no children died in last week's disturbances. Shannon says: "I understand such sentiments from the SDLP, who have always opposed street violence. But Sinn Féin conveniently forgets how many children were killed during IRA riots." Shannon was himself rioting on the Falls in April 1972 when Francis Rowntree (11) was hit with a rubber bullet: "I remember seeing Francis in his coffin, his head swollen like a huge football from the bullet. It didn't put me off rioting. The Brits and the cops were our enemy, but rioting was also good fun."

Dissident republicans, present during disturbances in Ardoyne, certainly support the rioters but did they orchestrate the violence as claimed? An ex-IRA prisoner, who served a lengthy sentence in Long Kesh and voted Sinn Féin in June's EU election, says: "The riot was too tame for it to have been organised. It took them six hours to get fireworks to throw at police. Anyone in the know could have got fireworks in 20 minutes. About 50 petrol bombs were thrown. Had the rioting been planned, it would have been 10 times that number."

Widened divisions

The republican said he had stewarded the residents' protest for Sinn Féin in previous years: "I thought that right at the time but I got sick of policing my own people. I wouldn't do it this year."

Sinn Féin insists dissidents "bussed in" supporters. "The vast majority of rioters were from Ardoyne but I don't understand Sinn Féin's position anyway," says Meehan. "When I was a party member, I was encouraged to go to the Garvaghy Road, the Lower Ormeau and Dunloy, to support beseiged residents' protests.

"Sinn Féin even gave us the petrol money to drive there. Sinn Féin hyped the parades issue in the mid-1990s to score political points. Now, it's in government and backs the police; it has abandoned residents."

There's a danger of a revisionist response to the trouble in Ardoyne. Past Provisional IRA violence is increasingly sanitised – "the good old IRA" now being joined by "the good old rioters" of the '70s, '80s and '90s.

Ardoyne republican Paul Carson says: "Sinn Féin's hypocrisy angers me. On countless occasions, IRA volunteers would join a riot and, from their position in the crowd, throw nail or blast bombs at police. Other times republican snipers would be on the sidelines waiting to open fire on police or British soldiers."

The rioting has widened divisions between Sinn Féin and many in the republican base, Carson claims: "While we were out on the streets in the pouring rain to stop the Orange march and challenge police, Sinn Féin and their hangers-on sat in the Crumlin Star social club enjoying a pre-arranged buffet."

Martin Óg Meehan says: "People are annoyed that Sinn Féin seems more angry at the rioters and 'dissidents' than at the Orangemen and police. On Wednesday, the police raided a house and threatened to Taser a heavily pregnant woman who tried to stop them entering her children's bedrooms. What have Sinn Féin to say about that?"

The problem for the PSNI is that the security response to the disturbances alienates the community further from police.

Local priest Fr Gary Donegan is concerned by the scenes he witnessed: "I saw young people ringing each other on mobile phones saying 'Come on, it's mighty, it's the place to be.' You would think they were at Euro Disney, rather than a riot."

Paul Carson says: "That's the electronic revolution. We used to bang bin lids or blow whistles to alert others that there was trouble; today's kids text or ring from their mobiles."

All the paramilitary wall murals in Ardoyne have been painted over except one. It pays tribute to republicans killed in the conflict. "Many suffer so that some day future generations may live in justice," it declares. Among those honoured are four local members of the Fianna, the IRA's youth wing.

David McAuley was killed in February 1972 when he accidentally shot himself with a gun he was hiding. He was only 14. He was succeeded as OC of the local Fianna by Bernard Fox. Ten months later, Fox was shot dead in a gun battle with the British Army. Young people engaged in violence in Ardoyne might be deeply regrettable, but it is nothing new.