Northern Ireland: After Ardoyne….

Can the parades issue be resolved?

On July 12th a major riot broke out as an Orange Order march passed the Ardoyne shops in Belfast. On the same day there was a stand off between residents and Orangemen in Dunloy in North Antrim and minor rioting broke out in Derry despite a local agreement to allow a parade on the city side.

There has not been widespread conflict over the issue of parades for several summers but the events of July 12th illustrate that the problem has not gone away. For this reason it is important that an alternative to the confrontational attitudes of some on both sides is posed.

Given the ever-changing sectarian geography of Northern Ireland, there are new controversial marches every year. New battle lines form as old conflict areas settle down to a weary stalemate. The Cushendall Road in Ballymena, for example, has become a contentious area as it becomes more and more Catholic. Catholic residents in the area certainly have the right not to be trampled over but marking out areas in every town and village as "belonging" to one side or the other will not solve the problem.

The controversy over marches is one aspect of a wider conflict over territory. In this conflict every square foot of Northern Ireland, every village, town, and road is claimed by one side or the other.

A solution to the parades issue based purely on sectarian geography is no solution. It is a sterile approach which ultimately worsens the situation, hardening attitudes on both sides.

The Orange Order is a reactionary sectarian organisation. Despite this it does have a right to march. To deny this right merely alienates the wider Protestant community and drives them behind the various bigots who want to whip up this issue. Local residents also have a right to object and to protest. The parades issue is therefore a problem of conflicting rights.

And whilst there are rights on both sides there is also the overarching right of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into a sectarian conflict over this issue. These rights must be balanced and this can only be done through discussion, compromise and agreement. Agreements should then be stewarded by parade organisers and residents, not the PSNI whose heavy handed methods only make things much worse.

Representatives of marchers must engage in face to face talks with local residents. For talks to be meaningful however they must be about something. When Gerard Rice of the Lower Ormeau Concerned Residents stated some years ago that loyalists must "find some way of expressing their culture other than parades" it is clear that he sees no future for parades.

Similarly ex-SDLP councilor Brian Feeney, recently spat out what others are thinking. Commenting on Ardoyne (Irish News, 22 June 2005) he argued: "Therefore it’s too much to hope that anyone can penetrate the tiny particle of brain their current leadership possesses to explain that the sectarian geography of Belfast has changed, that feeder parades along roads now Catholic are not on any more." For Brian Feeney the simple answer to controversial parades is no parades!

The right to march is not absolute. The Orange Order does not have the right to march through, for example, the middle of Catholic housing estates. Arterial routes (main roads) and town and village centres are however another matter.

During the Troubles Republican marches were routinely banned from the city centre of Belfast. Republicans represented a minority of the population of Belfast but this did not mean that they had no right to march to the City Hall.

Protestants are a minority in many parts of Northern Ireland. Does this mean that they have no right to march in those areas? Catholics in Ballymena are in a clear minority. Does this mean they have no rights? Sinn Fein have announced a march in Ballymena in August. Should this be banned because a majority in the city object?

The city centre of Belfast, and other town centres, should be viewed as neutral territory, open to all. Similarly main arterial routes should also be open.

Where an arterial route goes past an area where people object to the parade the only answer is agreement through dialogue.

This is the way that the controversy over the parades which pass the Ardoyne shops – and similar controversies – should be dealt with. Just to say that there should no parade and that the Orangemen should take buses is no more an answer than for the Orange leaders to insist they will walk where they like without talking to residents.

Ultimately sectarian organizations such as the Orange Order are part of the problem in Northern Ireland. The real challenge to the Orange Order – and to sectarian forces on the other side – will come from within their own communities as working class people search for an anti-sectarian, class-based and socialist alternative to the politics of the past.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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August 2005