There was fierce competition for my favourite story this past while. It was a toss up between the Police in West Belfast who were too nervous to attend a scene following the report of a dead body and the Police who asked an elephant to fill out an 11-1 form for parading illegally in BangorI have been a enthusiastic supporter of the PSNI since its inception, but I am finding them increasingly difficult to defend, when stories like this make headlines. In the West Belfast story, a woman was completely compromised by being asked to check a report of a dead body on her street. The risk she was exposed to was mind boggling. If indeed it was a decoy, were they going to contend that it was more desirable to have Jane Public blown up as opposed to a member of the Service? It was a topsy turvy response in a topsy turvy society. If I see a suspicious object on my street, I call the police, not the other way around.
But the proverbial biscuit was taken when the owners of a circus were stopped by the Police in Bangor for leading their elephant down the road without the consent of the Parades Commission. I have been at hundreds of parades in Northern Ireland now since 2001 as an observer. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly and have been welcomed, abused and ignored in equal measure. If I was to make one judgement on the issue of parades, from a completely personal point of view, I would say that tolerance and common sense are the two most severely lacking elements in the area.
I remember one of my first parades in Dunloy about 8 years ago. I was quite nervous about it, and didn’t want to ‘stick out’ too much, so I went and bought a copy of the Newsletter as a form of disguise. Unfortunately, it was eight o’clock in the morning and I had arrived on my motorbike in my leathers, so apart from the 6 members of the Lodge who were there and the Riot Squad, it was just ourselves on that lonely country road. As a catholic, I had little understanding then of why this ritual was so important, but I watched the men slowly walk around the garden of their Orange Hall as they were not allowed to do so on the street. After a couple of cold minutes in a ‘stand off’ with the Police, they hoiked themselves, their equipment and a wheelchair up on the bus for the day out to Derry.
I spent the day happily between doing a bit of shopping in Austins and watching the Apprentice Boys parade, before coming back to Dunloy. I’d had a pleasant day and to be honest it was a nice day out. When we got back to the Orange Hall, the Union Flag had been ripped down and someone had defecated on it. The gates had been smashed and fresh paint had been thrown at the Hall. My feelings turned very quickly to shame and it was around this time I began to wonder about how ‘oppressed’ we really were, and why on earth we think of one side good- one side bad.
Over the years I’ve seen almost everything, the hate and venom on both sides and the absolute lack of charity or clarity in how we deal with each other. I was once trapped in the front garden of St Matthew’s Church on the Newtownards Road, and felt absolutely terrified as those on parade went up the road shouting, screaming, threatening and being abusive. I realised it doesn’t matter whose side you are on, the fear can hit you anywhere and from any quarter.
But that to me is the point. Each side are hurting each other equally and often they dont even know why. Babies, toddlers and infants are all brought into the dispute being fed this hatred and fear with their mother’s milk. Over the time that I have observed parades, I have seen some excellent work done by some very brilliant and dedicated people. Mediators who work for little recognition or money, who have made these peaceful seasons possible. I also believe that there is a place for the Parades Commission, as it provides a safe space for people to come and express their feelings and fears. I think we still need this kind of place where open discussion can happen and where people can start slowly but surely to learn more about one another, and the opportunity to learn about compromises and sharing this small space we have.
But common sense has to be applied at all levels, and stopping a circus on the street and actually informing the owner that he was breaching the Parades Commission guidelines seems to me to be a new kind of lunacy. There is real work to be done and real progress being made. Why oh why would you want to damage this by making a laugh of the Parades Commission or the attendant legislation around parades? In order for policing to work, it requires the respect of the population, as well as the cooperation that will follow when that trust and respect have been established. Actions such as the two I’ve mentioned do nothing but remove respect and make some of us wonder what exactly it is that we are supporting.