How would unionists fare in the ‘road ownership’ challenge?

A favoured mantra of the pro-Loyal Orders parading lobby is that no particular grouping “owns” a road. The assertion is invariably made in the context of Loyal Order parades scheduled to proceed along roads through predominantly nationalist areas.

Of course, the issue of road ownership is a nonsense. Members of the very organisations which assert the right to parade along such routes as expressions of their liberties would be the first to screech in horror were reciprocal parades through neighbouring loyalist communities to be planned for by Irish republicans, using the same justification. Or would they?

Think back to the loyalist campaign of intimidation in north Antrim which was precipitated by unionist reaction to the prospect of a republican parade in August 2005 in what Ian Paisley Jnr labelled a “unionist town,” Ballymena. Incidentally, that was a rather unfortunate line of argument by the North Antrim representative given that, if logic was applied equally across the board, it would bring to an end Loyal Order parading in “nationalist” towns like Derry, Newry etc etc.

As things stand, and have for a very long time,Loyalist parading in nationalist areas is about demanding a level of tolerance of expressions of the British/ unionist culture which those involved have no intention of reciprocating  with regard to tolerance of expressions of the Irish nationalist culture. The sight of an Irish Tricolour in predominantly unionist Coleraine was enough to precipitate a vicious sectarian attack last year which ended with one man being murdered, whilst loyalists also protested violently at a similar appearance of a tricolour in Banbridge. Consequently, the prospect of republican parades through the centres of such towns with larger catholic minority populations than the protestant minorities in many other towns playing host to Loyal Order parades is, quite frankly, very close to zero.

But with regard to parading, crucially, that challenge has rarely been put to the test by republicans, who have instead opted for the moral high ground argument of objecting to the sectarian nature of the Loyal Orders on parade.

But, just perhaps, in the case of the Crumlin Road/Ardoyne parade dispute, a deal involving reciprocity could hold the key to defusing the annual conflict which flares up in mid-July.

It is an argument I have made before.

One of the elements of the loyalist case is that a parade provides the only means for their marchers and followers to return home after the Twelfth. By the same token, however, a case could be made for a republican parade from Legoniel to Ardoyne (and on to the City Centre if necessary). It genuinely is the case that there is no other means of getting from Legoneil down to the centre of Belfast other than by travelling through Ballysillan.

All of the sidestepping points normally employed by loyalists could be made:

  • Much of the parade route in Ballysillan would pass commercial premises;
  • It’d take but a couple of minutes to stroll from Legoniel down the Crumlin Road to the more catholic environs approaching St Gabriel’s;
  • This is a mixed road and those opposing clearly simply wouldn’t want a catholic about the place

(You get the picture.)

Such a proposal would throw down the gauntlet to loyalists to effectively practice what they preach and actually provide all with a win-win scenario if handled carefully.

Of course, those republican parades need not be as cynical as some of the Loyalist parades pushed through this area, not least the disgraceful parade organised to pay tribute to a UVF man along the route in which he killed a local catholic man- a parade recently very publicly opposed by the deceased UVF man’s brother. The experience of playing host to a republican commemoration might even make some of those responsible for organising such provocative parades think twice after listening to complaints from others in their local community.

But the fact that unionist communities would be tasked with proving their willingness to host reciprocal expressions of republican culture would be a game changing development with regard to this specific parade dispute as their ability or inability to accept the challenge could either transform the atmosphere prevailing at the Ardoyne interface during Loyal Order parades or finally discredit the loyalist case for continuing with contentious parades.

Personally, my favoured scenario would be one in which the Crumlin Road played host to marchers of a green hue at Easter and Orange hue in July, with both sides agreeing this as an honourable compromise worth building on in future years.