Wednesday, July 4, 2012
The Burden of History
Drew Nelson, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland today paid an official visit to Seanad Éireann. Last week Martin McGuinness met Elizabeth 11. Yesterday he and Peter publicly shook hands for the first time at the opening of the new visitors centre at the Giants Causeway.
And today the first meeting of the North South Parliamentary Association took place at Parliament Buildings in Stormont. The Association was part of the Good Friday Agreement and is jointly chaired by the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil Sean Barrett and the Speaker of the northern Assembly Willie Hay.
So all in all it’s been a busy and arguably historic period for the island of Ireland and for the reshaping of relationships between the people of this island and with our nearest neighbour in Britain.
The visit by the Orange Order to the Dáil is of particular importance coming as it does at the beginning of the most intense period of marches by the main loyal orders – the Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory, the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Independent Orange Order.
This blog has often remarked that the Irish national flag is orange as well as green and that we have a responsibility to listen to and engage with our unionist neighbours who make up the various loyal orders. If we want respect for our views then we must also respect the views of those who differ from us.
Most frequently this debate takes place around the issue of contentious marches – a fact that makes dialogue more difficult and in itself detracts from the imperative of having a broader conversation around building relationships between the wider unionist and nationalist sections of our people.
Clearly the issue of these marches has to be resolved. The refusal thus far by the loyal orders to speak to host communities has made this task much more difficult. But last weeks meeting between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth 11 must make that prospect now more likely.
If their Queen is prepared to talk and meet in friendship and mutual respect with an Irish republican then it’s difficult to see how any in the loyal orders can continue to refuse to speak to Sinn Féin much less community leaders from host communities.
This is especially so when one considers the human, economic and community cost that conflict over such marches has caused in the past. The number of contentious marches involved in literally a handful. Thousands of others take place without rancour. So why can’t we have a dialogue which respects and validates the views of marchers and host communities and find a way that sees this period of our year become one which families and communities can enjoy instead of fear.
But we have to go beyond settling contentious parades. We need to build a new relationship. Irish republicans want to understand and appreciate the position of the Orange. We accept the right of the Order to parade and to promote its sense of Orangeism. But this has to be on the basis of equality and mutual respect and tolerance.
Drew Nelson’s address to the Seanad marks another page turned – a new phase – in the process of building new relationships. It is the first time that a member of the Orange Order has addressed the Oireachtas.
And while this blog and other republicans have met with members of the Portadown Orange Order and there have been other private meetings, this is also the first time that the Orange Order has publicly engaged with Sinn Féin. This is a welcome development.
His speech to the Seanad was measured and thoughtful, linking the religous elements of the orders with the political and historical and community. There are aspects of what Drew Nelson said that I would agree with and aspects I would disagree with, particularly his belief that republicans orchestrated opposition to orange marches and attacks on orange halls.
That is not true. Even a cursory examination of the fraught and often violent relationship between the loyal orders and the nationalist community going back 200 years to its foundation would produce countless examples of such actions.
And Mr. Nelson ignored the role of the Order in promoting sectarianism and building a unionist orange state in the north which treated nationalists dreadfully.
However that is his perspective and republicans have to start our dialogue with him and the orange on that basis.
Drew Nelson presented an interesting and cogent case which must be listened to. The Orange Order is an important organisation. It is a part of what we are as a nation.
The idea that somehow there can be a lasting peace on this island without a dialogue between us is daft.
So, we need to talk and we need to listen.
Drew Nelson is right when he speaks about the burden of history. It is a burden that this far we have shared separately. Perhaps it’s time we shared the burden together.