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Peter Hadden

Back from the Brink

(September 1996)

From Socialism Today, No. 11, September 1996.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

An audible sigh of relief could be heard in working class communities in Northern Ireland when the August 10 Apprentice Boys parade passed off relatively peacefully.

For weeks people in these communities had braced themselves for a confrontation which, without doubt, would have led to widespread sectarian fighting, pogroms and, on the worst scenario, even towards civil war.

The countdown to Derry began four weeks earlier at Drumcree. The decision by the state to reroute an Orange Order parade away from the Catholic Garvaghy Road area of Portadown led to a mass mobilisation by the Orange Order, roadblocks across the province and widespread rioting in Protestant areas.

By July 11 the state faced a situation it could no longer control. Police lines at the Drumcree church near Garvaghy were about to be confronted with tens of thousands of Orangemen determined to break through. Should the lines have broken the Garvaghy Road estate would have been open to attack by Orangemen and local loyalist paramilitaries triggering a likely uprising in Catholic communities across the north. To hold the Orangemen at bay would have meant replacing the RUC with the paratroops who were in reserve, and using live ammunition. On this scenario it would have been Protestant areas which would have revolted.

So the state backed down. Instead of resisting the Orangemen the RUC was unleashed on Catholics, first on the Garvaghy Road residents, then against the people of the Lower Ormeau area of Belfast and most ferociously of all against the people of the Bogside in Derry. Protestant anger at the rerouting decision was instantly replaced by an intense feeling of anger and alienation on the part of virtually the entire Catholic population.

The weeks which followed saw an almost unprecedented polarisation of the two communities. To Catholics it was as though nothing had changed since the 1960s – the Orange state seemed to be intact. To Protestants the interference with parades seemed to confirm suspicions of a pan-nationalist bloc, backed by Dublin and Westminster, determined to eat into their rights and edge them towards a united Ireland. Neither of these perceptions are quite accurate. But both were reinforced by what was happening. One-sided RUC brutality gave weight to the graffiti which soon appeared in Catholic areas – ROC: Royal Orange Constabulary.

Protestants could look to a concerted campaign by nationalists and republicans to block Orange parades and saw in this a picture of how they would be treated generally as a minority in a united Ireland.

Much of the anger which was unleashed took a nakedly sectarian form. One after another Orange parades found themselves blocked by groups of residents in Catholic towns and villages. There was widespread intimidation and attacks directed against both Catholics and Protestants. During riots in border counties there were systematic attacks on Protestant-owned property. Campaigns calling for a boycott of Protestant-owned shops were begun and were publicly supported by Sinn Fein councillors at a number of rallies. In some areas Unionists urged Protestants to respond by boycotting Catholic-owned shops.

As this was happening all attention focused on Derry. Initially the Bogside Residents’ Group, one of a growing number of similar groups mostly initiated and led by Sinn Fein members formed to oppose Orange parades, called for the Apprentice Boys’ march to be kept out of the mainly Catholic west bank of the city, the area which includes the city centre, the historic city walls and the Protestant cathedral. Others echoed this. The IRSP, political wing of INLA, called the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys “fascist” and demanded that no deal be done to let them across the river. In other areas Sinn Fein began to organise to bus people to Derry to block the parade.

Meetings were held in Catholic areas of Belfast to organise rioting on the day. Also in Belfast 40,000 leaflets were delivered to Catholic homes addressed to “Catholics and nationalists” announcing that relief committees were being set up, among other things, to help with evacuees.

In this situation hard-line and intransigent figures who would not balk at the idea of civil war were coming to the fore, especially within the republican movement. Those seeking a full-scale resumption of the IRA campaign would have had their opportunity in Derry. The loyalist cease-fires would have crumbled isolating the more moderate voices currently dominant in the loyalist political leadership. All this in the context of pogroms and intimidation could have taken the situation beyond a point of no return. A terrible setback for the working class movement in the north, with all the repercussions this would have had for the South and Britain, was a possibility.

That all this did not come about was mainly due to the mood of the mass of the population who, having looked into the abyss, began to pull back from confrontation. Drumcree was deliberately engineered by hard-liners within the Unionist parties and the Orange Order. Local Orangemen were pressurised by those further up the Orange and Unionist establishment not to enter into any dialogue with the Garvaghy Road residents. A victory was won for Unionist intransigence, but at the cost of nearly wrecking what was left of the peace process, of driving even the Catholic middle class to the side of Sinn Fein, and of opening the door to a possible civil war.

Among Protestants, especially among the middle class, there was anger at the rerouting of parades but also a feeling that Drumcree had gone too far. The employers’ organisations, fearing for their profits, began a series of meetings with government ministers and Unionist leaders at which they forcefully demanded that things be got back under control. The effect on the Unionist leadership was noticeable. During Drumcree they had stormed out of the Stormont talks. They came back in subdued mood and, in the space of an hour, passed the rules of procedure document which they had resisted for seven weeks. The change at the top of Unionism conveyed itself to the local Apprentice Boys in Derry who, in a significant turnaround, agreed to face to face meetings with the Bogside Residents’ Group.

Anger in Catholic areas remained intense but, here too, there was an accompanying feeling that some form of compromise was better than all out sectarian conflict. When the Apprentice Boys agreed to talk the predominant feeling was that, if possible, an agreement should be reached. Those voices which called for the blocking of the parade on the bridge became more isolated. In the end there was no agreement, but the decision of the state to block the walls was, in practice, accepted by the Apprentice Boys and plans by the Bogside Residents’ Group to occupy and block off part of the city centre were called off after pressure from the SDLP, local clergy and most important, from Martin McGuiness of Sinn Fein.

August 10 passed by with relative calm only because the two sides avoided a battle and not because any differences were resolved. Overall attitudes have hardened over parades. Protestants, even those with no time for the sectarian and reactionary Orange Order, resent what they see as a nationalist interference with its right to march. Catholic Residents’ Groups have united behind the demand that there are no marches through or near Catholic areas without what they describe as the “consent of the host community”.

This is an issue which needs to be treated with sensitivity by socialists. Residents of working class estates must be able to say no to marches which they find to be intimidating and offensive entering their areas. However the contentious routes are, in the main, not through estates but are along main roads, through village or town centres. In such cases the single demand of consent, especially now that consent has come to mean veto, is no basis for a solution. The real answer is for local negotiations on the number of marches, their routes and the conduct of marchers. The positions put in such negotiations should be made public so that the working class organisations can pressure intransigents of either side who refuse a reasonable compromise.

Negotiations and agreement would remove one of the major problems of the marching season – the problem of policing. Much of the resentment in Catholic areas is to being curfewed and screened off by the RUC as parades pass, and sometimes for hours afterwards. Part of any deal could be an agreement that residents and march organisers would separately steward their own supporters and that there need be no RUC presence.

Ideas such as this were raised by Militant Labour members on the streets of Derry and Belfast in the days leading up to August 12. A Militant Labour leaflet argued “On the routing issue there are rights on all sides which have to be weighed. There is the right of residents not to have to put up with triumphalist behaviour or to be penned into their areas by the RUC. There is also the legitimate right, even of sectarian institutions like the Orange Order, to hold parades. But there is another right also – the right of the working class as a whole to say we are not prepared to be dragged down into a Bosnia over this issue”. These ideas were well received and they will now need to be put forward with renewed force in order to prevent endless confrontations over this issue.

Behind the parades controversy lurks something much broader – the political ghettoisation of the north into “loyalist” and “nationalist” areas. The idea that villages, towns, even districts are straightforward “loyalist” or “nationalist” is fundamentally reactionary, especially as many of the areas now commonly referred to in this way have either Protestant or Catholic minority populations. Yet it is an idea which has growing acceptance and which is reinforced by efforts to bar parades especially from town and village centres or from the centre of a city like Derry. Already Unionists have threatened to respond with the division of Derry council into two councils representing the two sides of the river, in effect the partition of Derry along Protestant and Catholic lines. Unchecked this process of geographical and political canonisation will represent a real setback to the prospects for any future united movement of the working class.

The month after Drumcree showed how quickly and dangerously a sectarian momentum can develop. It showed up the limitations of the peace process and the multiparty talks due to restart in Belfast on September 9. Unless Sinn Fein, who have been enormously boosted, are included, the talks can achieve little or nothing. They could even falter on the first issue – where decommissioning comes on the agenda. Yet without an IRA cease-fire there is little prospect of Sinn Fein being included.

The politicians and parties around the talks table, with or without Sinn Fein, will not deliver a lasting solution. More likely their failure will ultimately lead to a return to the Troubles, only worse than before. A real solution will have to be from the bottom up, not from the top down. The task is now to challenge the sectarian polarisation and ghettoisation by building on the unity which exists in the workplaces and by reinforcing the cross community links which bridge the communities.

This can be done through struggles around bread and butter issues. Campaigns against health cuts and against a recent government edict which dissolved two of the five education boards have considerable support even though they have been pushed into the background by recent events. But a lasting unity needs to go beyond these issues. Problems like parades, policing, decomnmissioning, prisoners and the national question itself, must be tackled in a manner which can unite the working class if there is to be a lasting unity.

The key is the building of a political voice which can unite the working class against all forms of sectarianism and for a socialist solution. The victory of the Labour Coalition, of which Militant Labour is an important part, in winning two seats at the talks, is a step on this road. The real work of building this Labour Coalition, however, must be done outside the talks, in the working class communities. The Coalition did intervene in the situation in Derry, meeting with the Bogside Residents’ Group. Public meetings have also been held in a number of areas. This is the type of work that needs to be continued.

A new and fresh generation of youth are coming onto the political scene. For them the period before the IRA and loyalist cease-fires of two years ago is not much more than a hazy memory. The real question now is whether a socialist movement can develop which can inspire them to struggle together against the twin evils of sectarianism and capitalism and for a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland or whether they, like past generations, will get drawn to paramilitary and sectarian organisations. It is up to the entire working class and socialist movement in Northern Ireland to make sure that the latter does not happen.

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