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Peter Hadden

Parades: Spirit of Drumcree
or Spirit of Dromore?

(May 1999)

From Socialist Voice, May–June 1999.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Last year’s events gave a vivid example of what could happen if things go wrong. The Drumcree stand-off, the sudden U-turn by the state and the forcible dispersal of Garvaghy Road residents, polarised the whole community. For a time it seemed that there might be a second stand-off over the August Apprentice Boys parade, and with it the possibility of widespread sectarian violence, even of the beginning of a descent into civil war. Fortunately there was a last minute drawing back and this was averted.

What has happened since – the burning of schools, churches and church property, the unresolved disputes in places like Dunloy and the ongoing Harryville protests – has taken place on the basis that the situation in Derry was defused. What would have happened if there had been a new Drumcree on the banks of the Foyle can only be imagined.

During these events some groups on the left were swept along by the angry mood in Catholic areas and adopted what in reality was a sectarian position. By contrast this paper – then Militant Labour – kept its head and put forward clear proposals to solve the parades issue.

We argued that this is a problem of two rights which in certain areas had come into conflict. On the one hand there is a right to march. On the other there is a right of residents to object to parades which they find to be offensive.

Both rights are legitimate. Residents have a right to say no to parades which pass directly through their area and which give offense to the majority of people living there.

While others on the left compare the Orange Order to the Klu Klux Klan in the US, or the British National Party in Britain, and deny their right to march, we argue that such comparisons are exaggerated. The Orange Order is sectarian, triumphalist and right wing but it is not a fascist organisation. To deny it the right to march would offend the overwhelming majority of Protestants and would only increase its support in that community.

The contentious marches are those which pass along main arterial routes and into town or village centres. This is a problem which needs to be dealt with sensitively taking into account the conflicting feelings of both sides.

For example, Orangemen may see the Ormeau Road in Belfast as a main road while the people living below the Ormeau bridge may see it as part of their residential area. Villagers in Dunloy may see their village as overwhelmingly Catholic. Protestants living in the rural districts around may see it as their local centre.

Given this the slogan put forward by residents groups last summer of “No consent – No parade” is not a balanced position and certainly not a basis for arriving at a solution.

In fact, as a general position, we, as socialists, stand for village and town centres to be open to all parades, all cultures. This applies as much to the right of nationalists, including Sinn Fein to march to the City Hall in Belfast, a basic right which was denied for decades, as to the right of the Apprentice Boys to march in the centre of Derry.

The problem is that this general position has to be applied concretely and when this is done the fact of the triumphalist history of the Orange Order, as one of the chief pillars of the old Unionist state, has to be taken into account.

Last summer we acknowledged the rights on both sides but added that there was a third and overriding right – that of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into local Bosnia by intransigence from either side.

We argued that the only way to solve the problem was through local negotiation and agreement. This position was not universally well received especially in the days after Drumcree, but it has stood the test of time and is increasingly accepted as the only way to avoid a new crisis this summer. The deal brokered in Dromore and the stance taken by the residents of Dunloy have given a concrete example of what negotiation can achieve.

Negotiations should take place over all disputed routes. Residents’ representatives should be elected by public meetings open to all in that community so that it is clearly seen they speak with a mandate.

The parade organisers must recognise the right of residents to choose their representatives and meet whoever is democratically put forward. Negotiations would be on the number of parades through that area in a year, on the issue of who will participate in marches and their conduct. It might help if deals were struck not over a one year period but over several years.

And the issue of policing needs to be tackled. The RUC’s behaviour in policing parades – the imposition of curfews, the battening of residents and the indiscriminate use of plastic bullets – has caused as much, if not more, Catholic anger as the parades themselves.

Local agreement on parades could include a call for no RUC presence but for both sides to undertake to steward their own crowds and to co-operate to prevent trouble.

The response of the government to last year’s crisis was the North Report and through it the setting up of a Parades Commission. Under a Labour government it is likely that this Commission would be given the statutory powers recommended by North.

A Belfast Telegraph survey early in April showed strong support, especially among Catholics for the North recommendations. On the surface the idea of an outside, independent body to arbitrate on disputes seems sensible. On closer examination the North proposals contain many pitfalls and dangers. Basically it strengthens the hand of the state to deal with parades, this despite the complete failure of the state to do anything other than aggravate the issue over the past two summers.

The right of the Secretary of State to ban parades for three months is retained. The required notice for parades is extended from 7 to 21 days. This applies to all parades and is a potential threat to trade union and community protest which, in most cases, are called at shorter notice.

An independent commission set up to arbitrate on disputes could turn out to be counter-productive. Rather than placing all the pressure on the two sides to negotiate this allows for brinkmanship. Both sides can fail to agree and take their case to the commission. They can then abide by rather than accept or agree with its proposals.

This means they can retreat for one year without having to reach any compromise or accommodation. The distrust and resentment will remain the same and as we have seen over the past year will re-surface in some other form. And the issue will arise all over again the following year.

On the other hand if one or other does not accept the findings of the Commission we are back to square one. North’s recommendations do not fundamentally alter the status quo as they leave the final decisions where it is at present – with the Secretary of State. It is recommended that he/she should have powers to revise the findings of the Commission after an approach from the Chief Constable.

The simple fact is that the issue is unresolvable unless there are local negotiations and local agreements. We recognise that there are those who will do all they can to prevent and wreck such agreement. In particular DUP members and members of Billy Wright’s Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) have been to the fore in protests against compromise.

What can be done if the influence of the bigots win out and negotiations are blocked? Recourse to the Parades Commission or the Secretary of State is not the answer. The only way forward is to mobilise opinion in both communities to ensure that the bigots and intransigents are isolated.

We urgently need an initiative, from the wider trade union and community movement to mobilise in favour of agreements on all disputed parades. This could mean local trade union and community activists putting themselves forward as intermediaries. More importantly it should mean meetings and rallies across Northern Ireland so that a voice demanding compromise is raised and is louder than that of people like Joel Patton and the Spirit of Drumcree.

The only solution to the problem is through local agreements backed by a majority on both sides. It is either this or else the parades issue will remain as a permanent headache which at any-time could overspill out of control.

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