Commemorating historical battles & tolerance’s test: Derry gets a pass; Antrim flunks

The weekend provided another example of how far ahead nationalists remain of political unionism in the tolerance stakes and just why it remains all too easy to drive the proverbial horse and cart through unionist politicians’ pronouncements on tolerance and all things shared, space and future.

The past week was the occasion for two commemorative events of historical conflicts in Irish history: the Siege of Derry (1688) and the Battle of Antrim (1798).

On Saturday, 35,000 loyalists descended upon the centre of the overwhelmingly nationalist city of Derry for a day-long parade involving dozens of loyalist bands, playing favourite tunes and flying flags associated with loyalism. Some of these bands took part in feeder parades, including the UVF-aligned Shankill Protestant Boys, who marched down the nationalist section of the Crumlin Road to the Twaddell Camp- before boarding buses to travel to Derry (because it’s very important to do that.)

There was no trouble and a senior PSNI figure noted that it was the quietest loyalist parade in the centre of Derry for three decades.

Alas, it still was not enough, and after some loyalists had marched past the catholics at Ardoyne and boarded buses to go to Derry at Twadell, others remained to attend the weekly protest rally at which loyalist leaders warned that there will be further action on the ‘graduated response’ front in the weeks to come at all levels of government. You couldn’t make it up.

Meanwhile, earlier in the week (Tuesday) in the town of Antrim (with a much closer demographic balance between unionist and nationalist than Derry) loyalists, with the support of Ulster Unionist Party councillor Adrian Watson, gathered to successfully prevent a tour of United Irishmen battle sites from including the centre of the town- a tour which has in the past included unionist and loyalist representatives, according to its organizer, former SF councillor Martin McManus. The story is featured in this week’s Antrim Guardian (not online yet.)

It is worth noting that the tour was not publicized in Antrim, did not involve flags nor emblems and did not involve marching nor flute bands, paramilitary aligned or otherwise.

In essence, it was the flip side of a tour of the Walls of Derry and would have remained utterly unremarkable to locals but for the decision of loyalists – with UUP support- to take action to prevent it from taking place (apparently they mounted a social media campaign to assemble the masses.)

UUP Antrim councillor Adrian Watson ‘fully understood’ the frustration among grassroots loyalists.

“They wanted to give these people a taste of their own medicine- and after a shameful campaign by the Ardoyne residents, who can blame them?

“They will undoubtedly whinge on that this was somehow a cultural event, but let’s get real here. This was a republican event for republicans, and the loyalist people of Antrim said ‘No.’

“Why should we tolerate their culture, when they refuse to accept ours? They can’t have it both ways.”

Let’s dig a little deeper on this one.

Councillor Watson’s effort to equate a historical tour with a desire of loyalists to march through a nationalist area of the Crumlin Road is, of course, spurious. The equivalent of an historical tour is another historical tour, and as I’ve demonstrated, these take place regularly along the Walls of Derry without adverse comment or opposition from the majority nationalist population.

The equivalent of a loyalist parade through a nationalist district along north Belfast’s interface is a republican parade through a loyalist district there, and as we’ve seen, to suggest that unionist politicians and loyalist spokespersons find that one hard to stomach would be quite the understatement.

In purely demographic terms, a ‘unionist’ equivalent of Derry would be Bangor or Lisburn, and the level of tolerance (rightly) displayed by nationalists in Derry in accommodating 35,000 loyalists parading and attending a commemoration of a battle significant to loyalists is quite simply unparalleled in our society. In short, unionists don’t ‘do’ toleration in their bailiwicks, else we’d have Jeffrey Donaldson championing the right of republicans to parade through the centre of Lisburn.

Don’t hold your breath on that one.

Antrim, on the other hand, has a demographic balance which, whilst majority unionist, also includes a very sizeable nationalist minority. Yet you will search long and hard for a unionist politician who would believe that the centre of Antrim should host a republican gathering in any way similar to that which took place in Derry at the weekend, never mind facilitate a historical tour.

The irony overload does not end there.

Councillor Watson was perhaps unaware that his own party colleague, Danny Kinihan, had granted permission to the tour organisers to include visiting Templepatrick Mausoleum as part of the tour!



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