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Peter Hadden

Back from the brink?

(July 1997)

From The Socialist [UK], 18 July 1997.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

In the Lower Ormeau Road, Belfast and in Derry, nationalists had been making definite plans to block the roads. That was after the INLA threatened to shoot Orange Order members who tried to march through the area.

Flanagan, the RUC chief, warned the Orange leaders that if marches were blocked then the police and army could not police a lot of the confrontations and the situation would spiral completely out of control. In the event most parades were rerouted, some after stand-offs in some areas.

This has defused the situation temporarily. The main mood is of overwhelming relief in both Catholic and Protestant areas. Those who had been pushing for sectarian confrontations, and who had been striking a chord all week, suddenly appeared out of tune on the Friday (after the Orange Order decision) when they kept a similar tone up.

This hasn’t resolved anything, however, because there are still many marches coming up. The hard line militarist element of the Provisional IRA, currently the dominant part of the leadership, has been trying to “up the ante” through these events. Through the residents associations they called for a nationalist/Catholic strike for one hour from 2 p.m.–3 p.m. on Friday.

Nothing could have been more calculated to divide work-places than to call a Catholic strike on 11 July. The attacks against Protestants on Friday 11 July were also obviously provocative, if either of the two young men had died then there would have been mayhem.

There were many sectarian incidents over the weekend. Catholics were attacked in one part of North Belfast by people coming back from parades and many Orange halls were burnt as part of the ongoing sectarianism.

Unionist splits?

The Orange Order decision has temporarily defused the situation and saved the. New Labour Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam’s bacon. From a security point of view the least difficult security decision was to reroute the Ormeau parade and to lean on the Orange Order leadership to accept a token protest. The Orange Order leadership decided to sidestep the whole issue by not marching but also reserving the right to come back and march at a later date.

Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership are saying that it was their pressure that caused the climbdown. In part this was true. Their threats to block the roads would have seen a massive confrontation.

But the main factor was the police warning to the Orange Order that if they proceeded then they were risking civil war. The implication to the Unionist politicians was that “if you risk civil war then Northern Ireland as you know it could disintegrate” – something they don’t want at this stage.

There is still a real danger of divisions and splits for the Unionists but for now the majority will wait and see what happens. However, if the parades keep getting rerouted and if they aren’t able to march through Derry city centre in August, then the whole situation could escalate again.

Class unity

The hard-line republican leadership are trying to remove any possibility of a ceasefire and were trying to escalate the situation out of control. It will be very difficult for the wing around Gerry Adams to get a ceasefire in the short term without divisions developing.

With the August parades still to come, the hardliners will use any ambiguity on decommissioning in the build-up to the talks to hold off from declaring a ceasefire. The hardliners hope that if the situation over the parades gets out of control and provokes a Protestant backlash, this then justifies arguing in the Catholic areas against a ceasefire or any-thing that would imply handing over weapons – because of the threat of; attack on Catholic areas.

The same logic would be applied then by the loyalist paramilitaries in the Protestant areas. Last week quite a deep mood was building up for sectarian confrontation. Those, like the Socialist Party, who argue for working-class unity against sectarianism found it difficult to cut across that.

But the decision of the Orange Order changed that dramatically and immediately. People who had felt themselves being drawn into a confrontation were relieved that they could step back.

The British Airways strike was very solid in Belfast, a small indication that there are other sides to the reality of Northern Ireland. That mood must be built on with an alternative being put forward, initially on the parades issue but taking up all the other questions which could isolate the sectarians on both sides who are hell-bent on confrontation.

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