A Republican’s Thoughts on the Marching Season

In the run up to this year’s 12th July, I initiated a number of threads challenging unionists to tackle the sectarian and triumphalist aspects of the pinnacle of the annual loyalist Marching Season. The responses were (unsurprisingly, some might say) lively and most managed to address the substantive issues raised in a thoughtful manner.
In a similar vein, I’m throwing out this thread and would be particularly interested in comments regardless of your political baggage.
As Marching Season’s go, this has been one of the best in terms of the absence of political and civil unrest- though, as a number of threads have pointed out, the low level sectarianism continues in the form of attacks on Orange Halls, GAA properties and attacks and threats against individuals- not to mention the continuance of the many sectarian practices associated with the 11th Night bonfires (burning of flags, political party posters and prominent display of sectarian slogans (KAT) on bonfires etc.)

Once again, as was the case last year, the relatively peaceful marching season has left a mood of quiet optimism in the air. Whilst some have got carried away with regards to the tourist potential of the 12th July, there is no doubt that many within unionism appear to be eager to transform the day to effectively close the chapter on the violent era of communal instability often precipitated by contentious marches and sectarian incidents preceding the marches.

The decision by the British Government and many local government councils to use public funds as a means of enticing unionism and the Loyal Orders to favourably address the agenda for change remains contentious in itself, not least because there is no guarantee that the path being laid out for the Order and associated loyalists will be followed- though, in my opinion, the signs are good – at least in relation to the 12th July, if not the 11th Night yet.

For nationalists, the funding of 11th Night bonfires is particularly galling, given that these often incorporate the burning of posters of nationalist and catholic leaders, not to mention the burning of the National flag of Ireland. Reciprocal funding for a 9th August bonfire which included the burning of the union flag and effigies of Ian Paisley would not be countenanced by local councils- and nor should it.

One of the first signs that unionist politicians are serious about assuming the leadership role necessary to expedite the process of reforming/ transforming the 11th/12th July will be when politicians unequivocally speak against the sectarian and illegal aspects of the bonfire culture, if not against the entire event in itself. The continuing refusal of unionist political leaders to robustly condemn, and distance themselves from, the sectarian dimension of the 11th Night bonfire is an abdication of leadership which is only compounded by the blind eye turning that goes on when bonfires are sited on roads, car parks or beside homes and end up costing thousands of pounds of damage annually.

One striking feature of the many complaints registered to phone-in programmes and newspapers this year is the number of local residents (and thereby most likely unionists) who have been compelled to register their annoyance at the negative consequences of specific bonfires, something which should encourage unionist politicians to show more assertive leadership with regards to these unacceptable practices.

The government funding for the optimistically (and there’s nothing wrong with that) entitled ‘Orangefest’ is a clear attempt to steer the Order in a new direction, using a financial incentive to keep the Order on board. Again, nationalists have expressed unease at this proposition and, for this, have incurred the wrath of some commentators in the past, eager to point to similar funding being received by the various nationalist festivals in Belfast.

But there is a distinction here which runs to the core of the nationalist unease. The funding being received by Feile an Phobail, and its equivalent festivals in other parts of Belfast, was only obtained as a result of the community moving decisively away from the destructive bonfire culture- in its place developed a wide variety of events, none of which involved burning flags and/ or effigies of political leaders, nor involved provoking communal instability by seeking to impose the republican tradition on unionist communities through marches into those communities.

Indeed, this year’s Feile an Phobail will include amongst its guest speakers and panellists Edwin Poots, Eoghan Harris and Desmond Rea, who have agreed to attend the annual ‘Talk Back’ debate, each of whom it can reasonably be expected will prove quite adept at providing a unionist ‘take’ on political developments here before an overwhelmingly nationalist public audience. There will undoubtedly remain a strong underlying nationalist/ republican ethos behind the August community festival culture across Belfast, but by incorporating such events an important message is sent out to the host community, as well as the unionist community, that contrasts starkly with that sent out to nationalists over the 11th-12th July period.

A second observation arising from the various discussions about the place of the 11th Night/ 12th July within unionist culture is the value we place on single identity v. shared identity celebrations. This occurred to me when listening to former Newsletter editor, Austin Hunter, on a radio programme on the 12th July last year. When asked about the cross-community appeal of the Twelfth, he was (in my opinion) rightly dismissive of the notion, and pointed out that not all celebrations need be cross-community to be positive. This year, when posed with a similar question, Belfast UUP councillor Chris McGimpsey resorted to the fanciful assertion that no one should feel threatened by Orange parades and all should be able to enjoy them.

In this I found myself concurring with Mr. Hunter. In reality those who believe that nationalists will ever likely feel comfortable at an Orange celebration are delusional at best and mischievous at worst. By definition, the Twelfth and associated Orange- and other Loyal Order celebrations- are about remembering an exclusively Protestant and British identity, celebrating victories over their neighbours and remembering defeats inflicted by this enemy- as our own Fair Deal put it so incisively, “it’s an Ulster Prod thing.”

Orangefest must be less about becoming all-inclusive (an impossible goal in the foreseeable future) and more about becoming a positive assertion of the unionist identity which achieves the objective of providing an outlet for the unionist identity but without antagonising nor provoking their nationalist neighbours at the same time- in this regard, Barry White’s observations of the 12th parade in Belfast this year indicate that progress is being made on this front. Essentially, as one Scandinavian tourist incisively put it when questioned during a UTV vox pop outside the City Hall last year, it is a ‘loaded’ celebration; let’s not deny that but simply acknowledge it and plan accordingly.

If this is sought after and achieved, then nationalists would have no grounds for objection and indeed would be churlish to do so- as unionists look today when they rather spitefully attack the Feile an Phobail. Essentially, the Orange Order and ‘Orangefest’ will have transformed itself into a cross between the nationalist festival culture and a much more dynamic protestant version of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians: the latter being an exclusivist organisation with exclusive appeal, but one which has long celebrated its culture in a non-offensive manner (so much so that very few nationalists- never mind unionists- know what it actually stands for!)

The flow of funding which has been delivered to the Order raises some uncomfortable questions for unionists regarding St. Patrick’s Day and, more specifically, the need to publicly accept the legitimacy of and expressions of the Irish nationalist tradition in the north of Ireland. The spectacle of unionist councillors standing in front of television cameras and pointing to a child waving a tricolour at next year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as evidence of why it is unwelcoming for protestants becomes all the more ridiculous when it is discovered that the same political leaders have no qualms in funding events over a 24 hour period in July when enough flags are waved and burned to keep a Chinese sweat shop in business until the next year’s bonfires are lit!

Living in our deeply segregated society, it can become easy to forget how deep and raw the political and cultural divide remains. Indeed, demographic shifts in the past 35 years have often been determined by a desire to reside in an area reflecting the single identity culture we are comfortable with as much as by coercive means. Where the two communities do co-exist (the much vaunted ‘shared spaces,’) it is often deemed polite to suppress overt expressions of one’s political and cultural identity. Likewise in the ‘mixed’ workplace, it is all too easy to adhere to Heaney’s advice of ‘saying nothing’ when the hot potato of local politics rears its head.

The marching season destroys the polite fiction of a mutually tolerant and harmonious society in its abrasive and often crude expression of the British and protestant identity by violating the unwritten rules that have developed around ‘the shared space.’

For nationalists, it poses a challenging question: are we able to respect the outward exhibition of the unionist tradition, albeit stripped of the sectarian cloak too often accompanying it?

It is a particularly challenging poser for nationalists as, unlike catholics/ nationalists in general, Orangemen have never bought into the idea of suppressing the expression of their identity for the utilitarian benefits of dysfunctionally mixed communities. In this, history has provided the Loyal Orders with a distinct advantage.

Whilst unionism’s fall from ascendancy in the six counties has been a necessary but yet symbolically painful one for the collective unionist community, one of the legacies of its bygone supremacy is the prominent location of Orange halls in villages, towns and cities across the six counties. Whether predominantly catholic or protestant, time was that the Order- and Unionism’s- writ ran supreme and the sullen catholic and nationalist community limply accepted the proud, in your face display of unionist colours from their main thoroughfares.

Essentially, there is no counterpart to the Orange Order within nationalism; whilst many like to hold up the GAA as a green reflection of the Order, in the latter’s explicit and assertive expression of a political identity it has no equal in our context. Consequently, nationalists- and some unionists- prefer to believe that, in the interests of maintaining civic harmony, a culture of ‘neutrality’ is best in regard to the visible manifestation of political identity.

Nationalists have good reason for believing that reciprocal respect for public manifestations of the Irish political/ cultural identity in ‘the shared space’ would be less than forthcoming. In this, the example of the first republican parade in Ballymena in 2005 is instructive.

Having traditionally shunned the somewhat crude notion of challenging unionists to tolerate a republican parade as a flip side for the many occasions in which the poser is put to nationalist communities, the reaction to the dissident republican parade on that occasion confirmed to nationalists that they were right all along to believe unionists were asking a degree of tolerance from nationalists that they would never contemplate extending to nationalists.

In the event, the unequivocal demands for no parade from unionist politicians and the wave of violence directed at catholic persons, homes and properties across north Antrim merely confirmed the long-held suspicions that demands for tolerance ran in only one direction.

Skip forward in time to this year’s 12th and the annual heightening of tension when loyalists use the Marching Season as an excuse to erect flags in mixed residential or even majority nationalist areas. Perhaps the most revealing example this year was to be found in Newcastle, Co. Down, where loyalists erected flags along the main street in the majority nationalist town. Defending the action, the DUP MLA, Jim Wells, argued that the ‘one-third’ unionist population of the town should have the right to celebrate their culture in such a manner. Perhaps Jim is right; but would Jim and his colleagues in the DUP be so quick to assert the right of the Larne, Ballymena or indeed Lisburn nationalist minorities to erect the Irish National flag along the main thoroughfares in those towns where they form a similar-sized minority? I thought not….

Ironically, it could be the case that the key to unlocking the door to summer marching season’s characterised by long-term stability lay in developing universal acceptance that ‘equality’ is better than ‘neutrality,’ given that the latter demands a restriction on political and cultural expression all around. But this would demand a quantum leap from unionists, many of whom (if Slugger’s contingent are to be believed) still hold to the line that ‘Ulster is British’ and there should be no acceptance of the political symbols of Irish nationalism.

The challenge to unionism must be to respect and accommodate the political expression of the Irish identity: to this day, in spite of accepting the principle of a divided society manifest in the complicated consociational framework of our new political dispensation, there remains a meanness in unionist politicians refusal to respect the place of the Irish tricolour as the national flag of more than 40% of their neighbours residing in the state.

From burning the Irish National flag to labelling it ‘foreign,’ unionists have yet to endorse the natural consequences of a society deeply divided along political lines- namely, that the political emblems of both communities be afforded official legitimacy.

One of the ironies of the present process is that the successful decommissioning and dismantling of the oppressive loyalist paramilitary culture will present unionists with the challenge of tolerating emboldened nationalist minority communities across the north.

I recently read a post-graduate’s research study into the attitudes of a minority catholic population in a county Antrim town. What became clear from the research is that the community have become accustomed to suppressing their Irish identity for fear of attack from loyalists. Those who’d even thought of establishing a GAA club in the area were too afraid.

Yet, if the peace process develops as is to be hoped, then the loyalist threat which suppressed expressions of Irish identity in majority unionist and shared spaces will rescind to the extent that will allow for a renewed and confident expression of the Irish nationalist identity to flourish- something that will challenge tolerance levels within unionism. In this regard, it is fascinating to compare how unionists in minority communities like Derry have remained able to assert their collective identity whereas nationalists residing in equal numbers (in percentage terms) in minority communities like Larne, Ballymena and Lisburn were simply too afraid to follow in a similar manner.

From a nationalist perspective, it is important that our political leaders continue to condemn attacks on Orange Order Halls, other property and persons, calling for tolerance of expression of the British/ protestant identity consistent with the simple but powerful message that cultivating a society tolerant of cultural and political diversity requires mutual acceptance of each other’s equally legitimate right to exist. As I have pointed out on Slugger before, unionists have failed to either respond to or sufficiently acknowledge the significant development in republican thinking behind the endorsement of the ‘neutrality or equality’ policy regarding symbols and emblems being flown from civic buildings in the north, with all that entails for respecting the ‘Britishness’ of unionists as Alex Maskey notably did during his tenure as Belfast Mayor. Once that is achieved, successfully overcoming disputes about the manner of that expression, which lay behind the heightened tension across the north every summer, may become a redundant matter in time.