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Peter Hadden

Workers’ unity can bring peace

(July 1998)

From The Socialist [UK], 10 July 1998.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

On the eve of the march the area in front of the Drumcree church resembled a first world war battle ground. A stream which runs along the bottom of the fields below the church had been dug into a trench and dammed further up to form a moat.

Beyond it three rows of razor wire had been laid across fields for more than a mile. The small lane leading from the church was blocked by two 25 feet containers filled with concrete: a blockade moveable, according to the army, only by the special equipment which put it there.

On the Garvaghy Road the mood was quite relaxed. What happened over the last three years has left local people determined that there will be no parade this year.

The memory of 1995 when Paisley and Trimble celebrated the fact that the parade was allowed through by residents by dancing a victory jig into Portadown runs deep and bitter.

Pressure on the residents to allow some token parade in return for face to face meetings with the Unionists and possibly even with the Orange Order about future parades, had been resisted. Subsequent assurances that the parade would not be allowed through had calmed the atmosphere.

The parade to Drumcree on Sunday morning was the biggest so far. When the church service ended the marchers assembled and walked the few yards to the barrier before turning and walking back to the church. Another stand-off was begun.

During the afternoon Orangemen and other supporters came and went, at times swelling the crowd to upwards of 8,000. While Orange Order leaders were giving media interviews warning that they would stay for a year if necessary, over their shoulders some of their members were physically making the point by erecting tents and bringing in sleeping bags and food supplies.

Residents’ spokesman Brendan McKenna warned of a repeat of 1996, when the State eventually backed down, and called for the whole area to be sealed off by the RUC and Army to prevent Orangemen from other areas coming to the church.

As night fell with reports of roadblocks in Belfast and other towns and of petrol bombs being thrown and cars burned in Sandy Row, few people were under any illusion that the deceptively calm atmosphere, which had existed during the day would last.

High price for high risk strategy

For the fourth year running Northern Ireland seems set for a massive confrontation over the Drumcree parade. The State, having banned it, now have little choice but to attempt to enforce this ban.

A U-turn as in 1996 would enrage nationalists and could wreck the fragile Assembly set up only a few days earlier. But to try to hold a line of steel at Drumcree is also a high risk strategy.

David Trimble was elected First Minister of the Assembly with the backing of the SDLP and of Sinn Fein. The Unionist bloc in the Assembly is almost evenly divided between pro-Agreement, pro-Trimble members and others who are in the Paisley/Donaldson No camp.

At Drumcree there were Orange Order and Unionist Party Assembly members who until now have backed Trimble. His warning that “this issue has the potential to bring the whole thing down” is not an overstatement.

A volatile and dangerous situation has now developed. The Orange Order are likely to try to ratchet up the pressure on the government as they did two years ago. The period around 12–13 July is likely to see protests and violence which could quickly develop into sectarian confrontations.

The peace process, at community level, has been just the opposite, a process of polarisation and deepening sectarian division. The Good Friday Agreement fudged all the most difficult issues. At some point there would be a price to pay for an Agreement reached on the back of greater division and disagreement within society.

The dispute over parades will not be solved from on high. The Parades Commission has no authority in working-class areas and its policy of re-route a parade here, allow one to go ahead there, is more likely to antagonise everybody than to appease anybody.

Negotiated agreement possible

Genuine local negotiation between residents and marchers could easily deal with the routes, regularity and conduct of parades. Agreement could mean stewarding by both sides and no RUC/Army presence, no screening off of streets and no curfews.

The immediate barrier is the refusal of the Orange Order to meet with resident groups. There are signs that some in the Unionist Party and the Orange Order are preparing to end this policy. They should be pressurised into doing so now, during Drumcree, not after when it may be too late. Even at this late hour there could be a negotiated deal over Drumcree and the rest of this year’s parades.

The alternative – that the issue is settled by force – would carry a heavy price which working people on both sides would have to pay, possibly for years to come.

30 years of the State policy of trying to contain and coerce the Catholic population by force has failed. A policy of battering Protestants instead is no more justified and would produce no better results.

If there is to be a way out it must come from the working class, Catholic and Protestant, acting together to overcome the problem, not from the State forces or the sectarian politicians whose role is just to perpetuate the division.

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