Last year, I wrote a piece in relation to the apparatus of the Parades Commission, arguing that the fundamental flaw of its operation lay in its core assumptions concerning the parading issue and its lack of a coherent regulatory framework in taking decisions. That piece detailed how the process of regulating parades focused entirely on parade participants and due to this limited frame of reference, did not properly design a system of incentives which rewarded good behaviour and punished bad behaviour in a logical, consistent manner across all interested parties.
So, we turn to the decision in relation to the stretch of the Crumlin Road skirting the edge of the Ardoyne area. Last year, significant restrictions were placed on the return parade, including prohibitions on music and a highly strict timetable for return by the some 800 metres of space deemed to be contentious. The Order and associated bands complied with this ruling in full, walking silently past with a much reduced number of men with the banners of the local lodges. Intense rioting subsequently occurred in the nearby nationalist district of Ardoyne.
Looking at this case objectively, if the behaviour of ALL interested parties within the parading dispute was being scrutinised, a ruling which took into account the importance of the rule of law would not reward the destructive behaviour of republican rioters. The decision of the PC this year simply returns us to the ransom of the apparent rationale behind parades decisions- whomsoever can create significant public disorder is likely to be appeased with a ruling in their favour.
Or perhaps not. The Belfast Telegraph reports this morning (although not yet online) from a senior source within the Parades Commission:
“The general public need to see- as in the flag protests- consequences for breaking the law. The only determination which the police appear to be able to enforce on the day of the event is a route restriction; this does not bode well for the future as far as parading organisations are concerned.”
Again, the differential impact on parading organisations can be seen- serious disorder does not affect the standing, integrity or right of residents groups to object to parades, but loyalist rioting is likely to lead to further parade bans in the future. This imbalance undermines the moral authority of leaders within the unionist and orange constituency to address the wrongdoing of some of their own members, as justice is not seen to be meted out consistently.
The arbitrary nature of some resistance to parades exacerbates this frustration. In particular, although Chris Donnelly talks of the Londonderry Twelfth as a success in a largely nationalist city, which could be added to Newtownhamilton in South Armagh and Rasharkin in North Antrim, he doesn’t address the core implication of this admission. That implication is that there must be deeper political motivations behind unrest than simply offence being taken at the parades per se. It is difficult to sustain an argument that nationalist south Armagh is any different in feeling than nationalist north Belfast.
Such an admission must necessarily defeat the notion, articulated by Fionnuala O’Connor in the Irish News, that “Orange parading has always been an act of belligerence dressed up.” Malachi O’Doherty has sought to contradict the baselessness of such notions by focusing on the good intentions of many expressing their religious and cultural identity through Orangeism. The complexity of the politics of parading is defeated by comforting myths.
Mick has this morning charted this deeper story in a north Belfast constituency marred by low level ethnic jostling over housing and territory. This story of the political leverage gained in exploiting sectarian feeling is not isolated in Belfast. The sudden appearance of a ‘concerned residents’ collective in Dungiven to protest against an annual church parade without any bands, banners or flags, occurred in the aftermath of scrutiny over an annual republican procession in the town last year.
As a result, the justification of “causing offence” as a panacea to explain opposition to loyal order parades masks significant political motivations to demoralise and marginalise certain traditions in vulnerable areas and the importance of local power plays as a key element in determining when parade contention is both maximised and minimised.
This asymmetrical equation means that republicans have incentives to attack the working class loyalist base in its continuing soft spot, dragging political unionism back into the perceived role of ethnic defenders and thus restricting its ability to appeal beyond their traditional base. Unionism is then left with a Hobson’s Choice. Condemn from a distance and be portrayed as abandoning a disgruntled and destabilising section of the population, or try to articulate a case in defence of anger and stand accused of blind ethno-nationalist politics.
The consequence is a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ situation for republican objectors to parades in a situation in which their own potentially malign political motivations are not scrutinised in a fair system of reward and sanction. The well-worn and counterproductive tactic of direct protest with no strategic direction by the Orange Order is made more damaging by the wholesale riot reflex and the present inability of the loyalist working class to appreciate the value of peaceful, restrained protest.
What the Orange Institution and others must recognise is that this deep ambiguity in relation to violence is systemic, one of the unresolved legacies of the peace process. Janus-faced political leadership is the cry when unionist politicians bark at the moon and call for the end of the Parades Commission, yet the lauding of IRA “heroes” in Londonderry by the Deputy First Minister escapes such close and detailed scrutiny.
The implicit view is that such rhetorical twists are part of managing a constituency, an aspect of ‘internal housekeeping’ to guarantee the commitment of former radicals to peace. The result is the politics of the lowest common denominator, where “keeping the peace” is always defined to be pleasing those who have abandoned a violent past, at least in actions if not always in rhetoric. This quiet consensus was recently upset however, by the passing of the SPAD Bill at Stormont, indicating that opportunities exist for a strong moral case to be made for some ‘red lines’ against this cosy ambivalence to the needs of former paramilitaries setting the agenda.
The present risk however, for political unionism is that the moral relativism at the heart of constructions of ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland becomes employed by unionists and orangemen in a tit for tat spiral. In this space, violence is described as inevitable as the political class wearily accepts its recurrence, with leadership ceded to the mob by default due to a state of resignation and powerlessness.
This not only subverts the moral case of the loyal orders in this dispute, it damages the wider image of unionism by allowing its horizons to continue to be narrowly set by its opponents. ‘Off with the heads’ of the Parades Commission is a reflex, not a political strategy and this only serves to channel anger against an institution, not the underlying political and philosophical problem.
Only when such a strategy to contextualise the wider politics of parading disputes and to eliminate the incentives for bad behaviour on all sides is offered by the Orange Order or wider political unionism can the sense of a debilitating powerlessness in the face of violence be brought to an end. Re-asserting some control of the debate means accepting that the rules of the game do not always have to be set by one’s opponents. In the meantime, destructive disorder, both violent and political, reigns.