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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland:

Parades crisis needs working-class solution
to wider sectarian conflict

(July 2000)

From The Socialist, No. 66, 14 July 2000.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Party Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WHATEVER THE immediate outcome over Garvaghy Road and other disputed parade routes the conflict over parades will not be resolved this summer. Unresolved it has the potential to re-erupt in future years.

This is a struggle over two conflicting rights. The Orange Order is a sectarian and reactionary organisation but the view that it should have no right to march is completely unreal in the concrete circumstances of Northern Ireland. But so too is the opposite view that it should be allowed to march anywhere and in any manner it chooses.

Residents also have a right to object to parades they find insulting and offensive. The only way these two rights can be reconciled is through direct negotiation between parade organisers and residents.

There are different circumstances to every parade and agreements would have to be worked out locally. However, there are underlying similarities and the general outlines of a deal are not difficult to trace.

Where marches take place through entirely residential areas, residents must have the right to say no, bearing in mind that minority viewpoints in an area need to be respected.

Most disputed parades do not fall into this category. They are mainly along arterial routes or through town and village centres. Here their needs to be dialogue with neither side holding a veto.

The Parades Commission is not an answer and should be scrapped. This government quango’s very existence works against any possibility of local negotiations as both sides tend to wait on its ruling, supporting it if it goes their way or condemning it if it doesn’t.

Face to face negotiations could decide the route of parades, how often they take place, who marches and the general conduct of marchers. There could be agreement on stewarding with each side stewarding their own supporters. There should be no RUC involvement, no curfewing, no restriction of people’s movements

There has not been a resolution along these lines because the row is about far more than parades. For the hardline unionists and loyalists it is about wrecking the Good Friday Agreement and striking a blow at David Trimble.

For UFF leader Johnny Adair it is about forging an alliance with the LVF, trying to outpace the UVF, and become the predominant loyalist paramilitary organisation.

Among nationalists there has also been a hardening of attitudes. Their more aggressive, more confident – and more sectarian – form of nationalism is based on an expanding Catholic population and sensing that the firm ground on which Protestants once stood is being eroded.

Publicly the position of the residents’ groups is for dialogue about parades. But privately the real position of the most hardline is that the only answer is no parade.

Gerard Rice of the Lower Ormeau Residents Committee as much as said so when he wrote in the Irish News: “Parades, not the absence of dialogue, are the problem.”

The growth of the Catholic population means that without a solution there will be more and more disputed routes.

The Troubles may be over in the form they took for three decades. But they now continue in a different form; in a drawn-out war of attrition over territory. A ‘victory’ by either side merely adjusts the delicate sectarian equilibrium in one direction or another.

The Orange Order is likely to suffer a defeat this year. But because of the way in which this has been achieved the overall effect will be to increase polarisation and reinforce sectarian division. If the ongoing battle over territory continues the end result will be Bosnian-style civil war.

There is another right that now needs to be asserted – the right of working- class people not to be dragged along this road by sectarians of any hue.

This year there has not been the tension over Drumcree of 1996 or 1997 and there is now an opportunity to build a united working-class movement to force a resolution, not only over parades, but of the wider sectarian conflict as well.

The Alternative to the annual battleground

ON MONDAY afternoon Northern Ireland ground to a halt as the Orange Order blocked roads in protest over Drumcree. Shops, offices, and workplaces closed early as people tried to get home before the barriers went up.

Belfast city centre after 4 p.m. was like a ghost towns in old westerns. The wind whistled through empty streets. All that was missing was the tumbleweed!

The protest was effective, but not because most of the Protestant population were involved. Most people just went home to avoid the rush.

Among Protestants there is support for Orangemen’s right to march but most people feel they should talk to local residents and be prepared to give a bit. Likewise Catholics overwhelmingly sympathise with the residents but also feel there should be talks and a solution.

Drumcree grabbed the headlines, but reports of the disruption were exaggerated. There is tension but not to the extent of a few years ago when civil war seemed a possible outcome.

In fact the biggest mobilisation was nothing to do with Drumcree. On the previous Friday, 50,000 people – more than were ever involved at Drumcree – turned out in Ballymoney for the funeral of motor cycling legend Joey Dunlop.

Catholics and Protestants from the north as well as hundreds from the south turned out. The Drumcree organisers were forced to acknowledge the event and called off the protests and roadblocks for much of the day.

The same day, the entire workforce of Shorts, a factory which has staged loyalist walkouts in the past, went on strike. This was nothing to do with Drumcree but the first in a series of one-day strikes over a new three year pay deal.

THIS IS not to underestimate what’s happened – or the potential for worse violence. The cutting edge of the Drumcree protests has been widespread sectarian attacks.

Interface areas, where Catholic and Protestant working-class people live cheek by jowl have seen almost nightly sectarian violence. There has been intimidation in some workplaces. Loyalist paramilitaries visited a building site in Belfast where a Socialist Party member works, to threaten the ‘fenians’ working there. The site was forced to close for a week.

As in previous years there were petrol bombings and shootings. Schools and Chapels have been attacked. This sectarianism has not all been one sided, Orange Halls and Protestant property has also been attacked. And the so-called ‘real’ IRA planted a bomb in Stewartstown, timed to go off at the height of the Drumcree protest.

The vast majority of working-class people don’t support any of this. Yet most people feel quite powerless and retreat to their homes waiting for it all to pass over.

The trade unions and community organisations, who could more accurately reflect working-class people’s feelings than the sectarians who are heard loudest just now, are largely silent. After a while Drumcree will most likely wind down for another year. The token protest will remain on the hill. Nothing will have been solved.

Instead of the end of one marching season starting the countdown to the next, this time it should start the building of a united working class movement capable of putting forward a socialist alternative and finding a way out of this annual sectarian mayhem.

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