A tale of two constituencies, leadership & acceptance of our competing narratives

Brian Walker has picked up on articles from Dan Keenan and Steven McCaffrey which reflected a sentiment noted by others on Twitter and elsewhere: namely, why is it that Derry seems to have moved past the mid-summer street confrontations that used to be the norm there and which still define a summer in Belfast?

Firstly, let us establish one incontrovertible fact: The ability of thousands of loyalists to march unchallenged through the centre of the overwhelmingly nationalist city of Derry stands as the single most significant gesture of tolerance towards the expression of the Other’s political and cultural identity in the north of Ireland today.

(NB I’d dearly wish we could set our sights much higher as a society in years to come, but as things stand, Derry’s feat stands apart.)

It is, quite simply, without parallel. The very idea of Lisburn or Bangor reciprocating through hosting a republican parade of similar size is simply inconceivable, not least when one considers how unionist politicians effectively abandoned their defence of Loyal Order parading as a right in their haste to demand the banning of a republican parade in majority nationalist Castlederg and of an anti-internment parade along Belfast’s Royal Avenue.

Derry is different from Belfast, not to mention Lisburn, Bangor or Larne.  As Brian points out, there are clear differences between the demographic profile of the two largest cities here, as well as their sectarian geography.

But it is not enough to argue that the clear and natural lines separating protestants from catholics in the city have effectively directly led to the calming of tensions in the city. That has certainly helped. But on its own that does not explain how the atmosphere in Derry has been transformed in the past decade.

Ironically, Derry is strikingly similar in terms of its clear lines of demarcation between the resident communities to east Belfast, where the treatment of the minority community has been a rather different tale over the same period of time.

The minority catholic community of the Short Strand has faced an unrelenting series of attacks in recent years, bearing the brunt of sectarian aggression from an angry loyalism intent on lashing out at the nearest possible location where the Other are permanently gathered.

In June 2011, loyalists launched an unprovoked and clearly co-ordinated assault on the besieged catholic community. Rather than strongly condemning those involved and calling for their arrest, Peter Robinson invited the loyalist leaders to Stormont for a meeting. Only a few weeks later, he supported an Orange Order demand made to the Parades Commission that loyalist bands be allowed to play hymns whilst passing St Matthew’s Catholic Church, long a target for loyalists incensed with the catholic presence in ‘their’ east Belfast. This all within weeks of the UVF assault on the catholic enclave.

The bands won the day, and rewarded the Parades Commission by playing The Sash, suggesting they were merely playing Psalm 23, a cynical move which provoked Belfast Telegraph correspondent, Liam Clarke, to depict the Order’s move as befitting of ‘corner boys.’

In 2012, a major loyalist parade past the Short Strand interface provoked a public outcry when a loyalist bandsman urinated on the church gates as successive bands ignored the Parades Commission determination to not play loyalist tunes.

In 2013, the loyalist flags protest led directly to a ratcheting up of the sectarian campaign targeting the catholic Short Strand enclave, with up to 15 illegal marches proceeding past the area on a weekly basis for months, with the PSNI being forced to publicly apologise to the beleaguered residents of the catholic district when loyalists launched an attack on persons and homes in the area upon their return from flag protests at Belfast City Hall.

Fast forward to the 2013 Twelfth, when loyalists once again attacked homes in the Short Strand area upon returning from the Field. The response, again, from political unionism was to deny the attacks occurred, blame the PSNI and locals, ignoring clear video evidence of loyalist violence as bands stopped at the interface to taunt locals and the PSNI.

The one consistent thread running through these incidents has been the absence of strong unionist political leadership, not least from the most senior unionist politician in that part of Belfast for the past thirty years: Peter Robinson.

Now, let’s compare and contrast Robinson’s approach to that of his fellow OFMDFM office-holder, Martin McGuinness.

I haven’t the year at hand but I vividly recall television and newspaper reports of a mainstream republican protest at a loyalist parade along the walls of Derry in the past 20 years in which it appeared that McGuinness seemed to have encouraged protestors to turn their backs on the marchers, with many also giving offensive finger gesture as the bands marched by.

Where are we now in Derry?

Well, as Brian rightly points out, the city appears at peace with competing narratives in existence, with Loyal Orders regularly marching unopposed in the city centre, in spite of the presence of loyalist bands at many of these major parades clearly aligned through their names and banners with loyalist organisations. (Were nationalists so inclined, they could point to these bands’ participation, link the organisations cited with specific killings, claim retraumatisation as the basis for reviving parade confrontation in the city. They don’t.)

Sectarianism has not disappeared, and nor is it confined to one community in either east Belfast or Derry. Fountain loyalists have been involved in a number of sectarian incidents in recent months and the sickening sectarian attack on Paul McAuley remains a dreadful reminder of the poisonous legacy of sectarian hatred in the city and throughout the north of Ireland.

Brian rightly lists the appalling sectarian attacks on the Apprentice Boys Hall and St Columb’s Cathedral, as well as on houses and persons in the loyalist Fountain estate.

Similarly, sectarian attacks on the protestant Cluan Place community and other neighbouring protestant areas adjoining Short Strand blight the lives of ordinary residents there just as much as those attacks in the opposite direction at the east Belfast interface.

But where a tangible difference is evident is in the reaction of the two leaders not only to the sectarian attacks on the respective minority communities in their bailiwicks, but also to their broader approach to reconciling the majority to the minority.

Imagine were Peter Robinson to develop a strong personal relationship with the parish priest of St Matthews, inviting him to speak at a DUP Conference, but not before introducing the priest by noting his right to refer to the ‘north of Ireland’ instead of Northern Ireland, thereby challenging his own political and electoral base to accept the political and not simply religious differences that exist through our competing narratives and visions?

Imagine were Robinson to ensure that his voice was very loudly heard when the Short Strand came under attack from loyalists, speaking in an unequivocal manner instead of indulging the myths peddled by loyalism’s local, ahem, ‘community workers’?

Imagine were Peter Robinson to lobby for funding for St Matthews, speak regularly of the Church and its parishioners’ status as equal members of the east Belfast community and make the symbolic gesture of attending a service in the church?

Imagine were Peter Robinson to wish republican parade supporters well ahead of their parades, tweet their banners, attend a play on the life of a republican bandsman and publicly hail the wisdom of their local leaders- all in a month defined by republican street violence and rancorous exchanges between our political elites?

As you’ve probably guessed, substitute loyalist for republican, change St Matthews and its priest for St Columbs and Rev Latimer, and you have the words and actions of Martin McGuinness.

The strong, unequivocal leadership of McGuinness and others in Derry has been such a success that the city’s dissidents do not even bother to organize protests anymore, a sign that the positive message promoting respect and tolerance in the city has succeeded in outmaneouvring them, denying them an opportunity to annually confront loyalism and seek to grow their numbers through such encounters- as is obviously the agenda of those behind the loyalist Twaddell Camp in north Belfast today, which receives regular support through personal appearance and press and twitter statements from DUP politicians.

Of course, it helps that Derry has practiced power-sharing at council level for a generation, with the current Deputy Mayor being a DUP councillor. Again, the importance of embracing the Other’s status within the community contrasts to the attitude of unionist politicians in Robinson’s fiefdom of Castlereagh, where even Alliance are excluded from any meaningful role in the vain pursuit to prolong the dominance of unionism’s narrative across the north of Ireland.

Derry is different. In one sense, the fact that its historical status and significance to unionists asks more of nationalists has helped the latter appreciate the need to come to terms with the existence of a unionist narrative.

But it also provides a stark challenge to unionists to reciprocate, and the overwhelming evidence from the words and actions of unionist political leaders and their rudderless base can only lead to the conclusion that the leadership is not yet at peace with its obligations in that regard. It starts with accepting the legitimacy of the Other’s existence, narrative and visions for the future, and recognising that the shared future which promises stability, prosperity and enduring peace is not possible without that acceptance.