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Stephen Goss: Marching season still brings rioting to Northern Ireland; how can we resolve the issue?

Goss StephenStephen Goss is a PhD history student at Queen's University Belfast and Chairman of Northern Ireland Conservative Future. Follow Stephen on Twitter. 

It’s that time of year again. The Assembly is in recess, so the silly bickering and playground squabbling that characterises Northern Irish politics has spilled out of Stormont and onto the streets.

As usual, at the time of year when we should be selling our spectacular scenery, renowned hospitality and general attractiveness as a summer holiday destination, the image beamed around the world is of violence, disorder and conflict. Anyone who had been around – particularly in the UK – for at least the last twenty years will probably think nothing of this. Riots or bomb-scares in Belfast are the sort of headline that most people possibly take for granted and skim over or scroll past, accepting this as nothing out of the ordinary. The slightly better informed will link the ‘marching season’ with the unrest and accept this as a natural correlation.

Why? Why should July and August inevitably produce rioting in Northern Ireland?

Marches and riots

Why, fifteen years after we stopped murdering each other, when we have established apparatus, quangos and safeguards to prevent this, do Orange marches still provoke violence?

At the back of many minds, particularly those in officialdom, there is probably a mentality of an ‘acceptable level of violence’. It’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, so this level of destruction and disruption can be tolerated every now and again. Mainly however, it comes down to two factors: the dysfunctional nature of the structures and arrangements in place to stop it, and the mentality of the key players.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that the Orange and the plethora of other Loyal Orders that exist in Northern Ireland hold hundreds of parades every year, the overwhelming majority of which are entirely peaceful.

It is a handful – usually occurring on the Twelfth of July – which are contentious and provoke a violent reaction. It is this tiny number which is picked up on by the national and international media and consequently characterises the marching season. However, for the minuscule number that do make the news, the contention generally results from structural failure and, frankly, unabashed stubbornness.

A struggling Parades Commission

Since 1998, Northern Ireland has had the Parades Commission, set up to facilitate mediation, place conditions on public processions and ensure they pass off without incident or causing offence. Republicans see it as a tool for stopping loyal order parades while the Orange Order consider it a ‘discredited and unaccountable quango' and refuse to talk to it.

This aside, there can also be informal dialogue to reach agreement on specific parades at a grassroots level. Many nationalist/Republican/Catholic areas will have a Residents’ Association orchestrated to vociferate their outrage about something and inevitably assuming the mantle of negotiator with groups which want to hold a parade through – or even just near – the area they represent.There has been a reduction in the number of contentious parades as a result of both the Commission and dialogue, but the stage has now been reached where the Parades Commission is good at overseeing those that are unproblematic but ineffective when it comes to parades which do produce trouble.

The other issue is the mind-set and temperament of those concerned: namely the Orange Order and residents in Republican areas.

A clash of outdated mindsets

The former retains an outdated mind-set where, as local columnist Alex Kane has recently revealed, a majority still think they have an inherent right to march wherever should please. The cretinous Orange leadership in Belfast continues to undermine the work the Order as a whole has been doing to promote a positive image of itself and The Twelfth, or ‘Orangefest’ as it has been renamed.

A blind assertion of rights without any consideration for responsibilities has only added to the tension around contentious parades in Belfast. A similar obduracy in republican communities about their rights above all else and the concomitant rabble-rousing, further builds the tension, which then releases itself in violent clashes. North Belfast is an excellent example of this. Days of rioting were provoked by the desire of Orange Lodges to march past the Catholic Ardoyne area and the Parade Commission’s decision that they should be allowed to do so going – but not returning.

The Lodges asserted their right to parade back the way they came and when they were prevented from doing so by the police, violence erupted. Calling for a protest at the police line, but not overseeing it or having any contingencies in place, was grossly irresponsible of the Orange Order. What’s more, pictures of rioters wearing Orange sashes and uniformed band members attacking police can only serve to further damage its image and hand when it comes to asserting its case in the future.

The scenario could have been avoided if both sides in the quarrel had been willing to exercise some common sense and genuinely compromise. To begin with, take the ‘Greater Ardoyne Residents [sic] Collective’ attitude: they unsurprisingly objected to ‘sectarian’ parades through ‘their’ area. 

Yet the Orangemen were not demanding to march through some sort of Catholic heartland, but past a row of shops. Yes, this may inconvenience those inhabitants who have not joined the annual mass exodus from Belfast at this time of year. However, this parade route is not new, an acceptance and understanding that if you choose to live there you may have to contend with a march on The Twelfth would go a long way to helping the situation.

Similarly, there are alternative arrangements that the Lodges could make in order to get into the Belfast City Centre to join the rest of the Orders, thereby easing the dispute.

Sadly, circumstances have dictated that this sort of approach is unlikely to be applied. On the 12th July last year, one of the bands escorting North Belfast Lodges took the utterly reprehensible decision to march in a circle playing deliberately sectarian songs outside a Catholic Church on the parade route.

This deplorable behaviour likely hardened republican attitudes against the march this year, prompting the ruling against the return parade, which has again aggravated loyalist feeling, so that they resorted to violence and plan on holding a protest march every Saturday until they’re allowed past Ardoyne. A Sinn Fein initiative in December stopping the Union Flag being flown from Belfast City Hall 365 days a year inflamed loyalists who already felt excluded from the peace process and its dividends. This further attack on the Britishness of Belfast by its republican councillors has further contributed to the tit-for-tat nature of inter-communal relations in Northern Ireland continues.

Getting a peaceful summer

What is to be done to resolve this?

Some political leadership would be a good start. Sadly, it is once again lacking. The Assembly was recalled to discuss the situation and a motion passed in what was undoubtedly a brilliant way to be seen to do something without actually doing anything. The Parades Commission also needs to be replaced by a more effective means of dealing with the problem. It might be of some help to the situation also if the Orange Order, instead of simply sulking and objecting to proposals, actually suggested a means of resolution it would engage with.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed that something has to be done. They are of course unwilling to deal with this sort of difficult issue themselves, and so an all-party group chaired by former US Special Envoy, Dr Richard Haass, is to be established to deal with parades, protests, flags, symbols, emblems and basically everything else contentious in Northern Ireland. This way it is everybody’s fault when no-one is happy with the recommendations produced.

Whether this will indeed finally put an end to the annual rioting season that is a fixture of Northern Ireland’s calendar remains to be seen. What is needed to resolve the problem however, is some political leadership; courage; and above all, compromise from the key players. 


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