The Orange marching season always provides its fair share of problems.
Some of it is the mundane business of charting a course through the inevitable traffic chaos which on this ‘Twelfth’ will result from 18 major demonstrations across all parts of the north.
But most focus will be on the small number of contentious parades. In past years they have resulted in chaos of a different and more violent kind.
41 years ago it was an Orange march in Derry which led to the Battle of the Bogside and the pogroms in Belfast. And the following year, 1970, it was another orange march on the Springfield Road in west Belfast which led to the first serious confrontation between nationalists and the British Army. It marked the beginning of the British Army’s military offensive against the nationalist people.
More recently in 2005 the policing of the controversial Orange parade to the Whiterock Loyal Orange Lodge on the Springfield Road in
West Belfast and the subsequent rioting cost £3 million sterling.
The rioting by members of the “loyal” orders lasted for days after an
Orange Order parade was barred from going through security gates into an area of the Springfield Road which is almost entirely Catholic. Not surprisingly these residents resent the sectarian abuse heaped on them by some elements associated with these parades. They also resent the virtual siege and the military and police curfew imposed on them.
Eighty-two people were arrested, twelve weapons were recovered and ninety-three police officers were injured. Statistics on civilian injuries, as is usual in these cases, are not available, but without doubt scores of people were hurt. “Loyal” rioters fired 150 live rounds. They threw 167 blast bombs at police lines, hijacked 167 vehicles and threw over 1,000 petrol bombs. The police fired 216 plastic bullets.
Last year there was the awful sectarian murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine and rioting in Ardoyne.
All evident of the underlying sectarianism that is an intrinsic part of Orangeism.
So, host communities feel besieged and are understandably fearful when the marching orders insist that they have the right, without regard to those communities, to parade through areas where they are not wanted.
There are now almost 4,000 parades annually by the various marching orders and most of these pass off peacefully.
For its part, the Orange Order refuses to talk directly to the host communities or the Parades Commission which was established by the British government to deal with these issues.
Earlier this year at negotiations in Hillsborough the DUP and Shinners came to an agreement on a new way forward for resolving the issue of contentious parades. This common sense approach is based on equality and the right of everyone to live free from sectarian harassment.
It is a serious and genuine attempt to provide a legal framework within which this matter can be resolved and which seeks to protect the rights of the marching orders and the rights of host communities.
It is also about improving on what is currently there and will include the transfer of parading powers from London to the political institutions in Belfast. It will also require legislation passed in the Assembly.
Last week the Grand Lodge of the Orange Order narrowly rejected the draft proposals on parades. The charge against the legislation at the meeting in Tyrone was led in the main by Tom Elliot who hopes to be the next leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and his party colleague David McNarry.
I don’t know Tom Elliot very well. He always seems a bit standoffish. He was one of the main movers behind the orange sponsored efforts to foist a Tory MP on the people of Fermanagh South Tyrone. David McNarry is wee but bumptious but a civil enough being for all that. So, if the truth be told their rejection of the Hillsborough proposition is about squalid party politicking and about the battle for the hearts and minds of unionists between the UUP and the DUP.
The move at the Grand Lodge was not about what is best for the community and the future peaceful resolution of contentious parades. It isn’t even about what is best for the Orange. It’s about the UUP making life difficult for the DUP.
I have written again this year to the leaderships of the various marching orders asking to meet with them to receive a briefing on the issue of parades and to discuss with them the role and place of orangeism in modern Irish society.
Thus far the Orange leaderships still refuse to talk to Sinn Féin even though their political leaders, including the UUP, are in government with us and there are many informal contacts between republicans, incouding this blog, and the orange.
Why do they refuse? Tens of thousands of words have been written over the years trying to explain the motivation and thinking of the Orange. Some dismiss it as pure and simple sectarianism and hatred of anything ‘Catholic’.
But that’s to let them off the hook. It’s all about power. For over a century the Orange Order was the glue which meshed the political and economic interests of the unionist political and business establishment and its urban and rural working class.
The northern state was their state. It didn’t matter that most unionists lived in appalling housing conditions or worked for big house unionists for buttons or suffered ill health or … The northern state was theirs; they had the jobs; they got first preference for the housing; the RUC was theirs; they had the vote and the unionist party exercised power on their behalf – well not really. It exercised it on its own behalf.
But Orangeism gave unionists a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority.
And now all of that is changing. The sectarian certainties of the past have gone. Political unionism has compromised and Executive and Assembly power is conditional on equality. And the Orange finds it difficult, and some find it impossible, to come to terms with the new realities.
So, there is no easy solution to the issue of contentious parades or to breaking down the prejudices that exist within unionism and Orangeism. It is one of the big challenges facing republicans.
But the starting point must be that there has to be dialogue. This is particularly important in light of the efforts by some on the fringes of unionism and nationalism who seek to provoke conflict and street disorder around the 12th – some of which we witnessed on the 11th night in north and west Belfast.
This must be strenuously opposed. I would appeal to everyone to behave in a dignified manner in the next few days.
I believe that it is in the interest of the Orange to engage properly and fully with their neighbours.
Some within the Orange have clearly, if slowly, come to this view. All sensible people will support those elements who have moved or are moving in this direction. They certainly have my best wishes.