Everyone likes a parade. I get it. They’re all pomp and circumstance – people showing off their heritage, their music, their flags. There are parades worldwide for what seems like every single little excuse that anyone can find. Some are big, some are small, some are downright silly, and some threaten a fragile balance.
The marching season in the North of Ireland falls into the last category. July 12th is a day that roughly half of the population celebrates the victory of William of Orange (a Dutch King, by the way) over the English King James II. It’s a huge holiday which is steeped in irony, when you think about it. This is a bunch of people who violently insist on being considered British that take to the streets to celebrate a Dutch victory over their own historical ruler. Label that one for storage in the “Things that make you go hmmmm” file.
The truth is, they are really celebrating the defeat of Catholicism. James II was a Catholic and when the Dutch king defeated him, Protestants were granted great wealth and positions of power. It opened the door for instant change – one that Protestants in the area have enjoyed for centuries.
Now I’m no Catholic. In fact, I was raised a fundamentalist Protestant. I left the church and any serious dogma behind in my teens because in my experience, all religion brought me was confusion and heartache. I know there are many people who agree with me because I’ve met a ton of them over my life and we all enjoy being heathens. I did not meet many in Northern Ireland though.
I was traveling in winter, when most people don’t expect tourists and I made the mistake of trying to walk through the Peace Wall from the direction of the Falls Road. I was stopped by 3 men who were hanging out on the sidewalk. They were standing in front of a mural with a red hand that said “We are Proud, Defiant, and Welcoming” and they were just that, except for the last part. No one said a word, but they fanned out over the sidewalk with their arms crossed, just looking at me. I could step into traffic to attempt to go around them or I could walk back through the Peace Wall to the Falls. I opted for the second option because I was intimidated and confused. I wanted to see both sides. I have studied them both, wanted to see them both firsthand, and I had felt welcome everywhere in Ireland until that moment.
It took me a minute to realize I had become the dumb American. If I wanted to see both sides, I should drive through the neighborhoods or take a taxi like a good tourist, rather than be a stranger who is walking into a close knit neighborhood in the middle of a political flare-up with a large bag at a time of year when tourists are not expected . But I didn’t do that. I was out of time as it was getting dark and that encounter had shaken me a little. I went back to the hotel and thought long and hard about what I wanted to do for my last day in Ireland. I did not make it to the Shankill area, which in retrospect has made me sad ever since. Because of that, I have been devouring books and watching documentaries filmed in the neighborhood, and listening to the Orange order and their speeches and opinions. I’ve been trying to be sure that I am learning equal parts of the Northern Irish puzzle.
In every one of those conversations, the same theme repeats when it comes to the marching season. Most believe that their traditions are being whittled away and that the Parade commission is yielding to Republican pressure in order to suppress their “right” to march where they want. None admit to any of the sectarian violence or rioting that has occurred for decades along their chosen route, and if they acknowledge it at all, it’s always the other side’s fault. Last year imbedded reporters with one of the marching bands were forced out of the area as the riots erupted – and the same members of that marching band are now being questioned for their role in instigating the violence that occurred later.
Now I have no real right to talk about the Troubles. I have not lived through them. I know a whole lot about them and have studied Irish history for most of my life but I’m just too far away from the reality of them to have a truly valid opinion. I often wonder if that distance allows for the emotional detachment necessary to be logical, or if it just makes me more insensitive. I also know that I’m about to dip my toes into something that may label me that dumb American or “Plastic Paddy” again.
Regardless, here it goes. I think the Parade Commission has made the right choice in the last couple of years. They are not stopping the parades. They are not prohibiting any speech or rhetoric, no matter how hateful or bullying it gets. They are not denying the fundamental right to be seen and heard loud and proud on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere. They aren’t stopping the bonfires, the bands or the traditions – even though they seem to celebrate sectarianism and supremacist ideals. In fact, the ONLY thing they are doing is changing a route….and even then, it’s only the route home.
It’s not as if that is the route that William of Orange took to defeat King James II. It’s not as if that half mile stretch of road has any significance whatsoever in the actual battle between kings. The only significance of that route at all is that it has historically been the site of violent intimidation, terrible retributions and an ongoing struggle for control. You would think that everyone on both sides would be sick of that kind of thing by now.
But you’d be wrong. In fact, the route is so important that the future of power sharing in Northern Ireland is at risk. Violence gets higher by the day and hate-filled rhetoric fills the cameras while the media skews their coverage depending on which side they agree with. All this over a parade that has staunchly British folk celebrating their own defeat by the Dutch that is not actually being stopped, just rerouted.
The tactics of the Unionist party leaders are attempting to do exactly what they claim the Republicans have done. In walking out of the government in protest, they are hoping to blackmail the Parade Commission into changing their minds. The threats of widespread violence are designed to do the same. Point that out though, and it all becomes rhetoric about what they claim is their right and heritage and once again, it’s the other guy’s fault.
This world has truly gone mad when something like a half mile stretch that they have already marched on can result in a government deadlock and disrupt any hope of a lasting peace. It would be more understandable (ish) if the parades were being stopped altogether or if speeches were being censored, but they aren’t. I see in all the reports I have watched that they actually think they are being discriminated against or shut down by not being allowed to go back down the road, but I think they’re wrong. From over here, (admittedly far away) it seems that the proud music, the fiery speeches, the traditions, and the celebration of Ulster Orange is not being cracked down on in any way – except that the blatant disregard for the people who live on that street who don’t believe in the same dogma no longer have to worry about the after dark, tipsy crowd getting violent in what is their neighborhood too. It’s not as if they don’t still hear it or deal with it if the parade is a block or 2 away – they do. All it means is that they might not have to worry about their windows or their homes being ruined quite as much.
It’s a compromise – one that seems to be fair to me. It’s the only one that has been made in the last couple of years when it comes to the season and it seems to me that one stretch of a return route is not worth all this trouble. My short experience in Belfast left a lasting impression of a barely contained explosion waiting to happen and how unfortunate it would be for the whole area if the spark that sets it off is a parade.
Here in America, the party line is that all people are equal. I know that we fail in that all the time, particularly this week when it comes to religion and women. Our parades do not often celebrate the current or ongoing subjugation of others and I doubt that parades of this type would be allowed at all in most U.S. cities. The fact that the government has not stopped them in Ulster knowing what a powder keg they can be is sometimes altogether bewildering. But they haven’t – and the Orange Order can still celebrate their victory over Catholicism in whatever manner they choose – including shouting hate-filled speech and burning effigies of their religious and political opponents. The violent nature of this hasn’t been addressed at all by the government except in how the end of the day is routed. I say that’s still really lenient and it should not be seen as taking something away, but as still allowing almost everything.
I only wish that more people agreed and that Protestant and Republican leaders would actually try to encourage their constituents to see that their own compromise would better the lives of everyone, instead of fanning the flames of violence. Everyone loses in this game as it is being playing out. The businesses lose money, property damage goes through the roof, the resources of the city are drained, the tourism declines dramatically, and the citizens of Ardoyne on both sides live in paranoid and valid fear every July. Instead of getting better, it’s getting worse and there’s nothing more tragic than that for those that yearn for any kind of coexistent peace.
Peace. It’s something we all should strive for and along that road to it, compromise must be considered and encouraged. People like to think the Troubles are over but until this type of leadership and sectarianism is done, they never will be and each side will truly only have themselves to blame for that – not the other guy. I watch the news of northern Ireland every July and I am filled with heartbreaking resignation and fear for the whole area. The saying goes that some things have to get worse before they get better and I can only hope that this is one of those things. History says it isn’t though, and I fear for what is to come in the North if that history continues to repeat itself over and over again.