Parading is one of the major issues that keeps raising tensions in the divided society of Northern Ireland. Since the 18th century this celebration of commemorating historical events has played a religious and political role and is often, up to today, accompanied by violence and riots.
The period 2011-12 saw 4,182 parades throughout Northern Ireland. 60% were Loyalist/Unionist parades, while 51% of these were held by the Orange Order (see Parades Commission’s annual report). 213 of these parades were contentious. During the Troubles and now, the flash-points have been the Bogside in Derry, Ormeau Road in Belfast, and Drumcree in Portadown.
Most of the parades take place during the ”parading/marching season”, from April to August. It sees parades by mainly Protestant fraternities, for example the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys of Derry, whose parade in Derry-Londonderry in 1969 led to the Battle of the Bogside, which by many is considered the start of the Troubles. Catholic fraternities like the Ancient Order of Hibernians parade less frequently, with their main parades being on Saint Patrick’s Day and Easter.
The Protestant Orange Order (formed in 1795) is the most active parading group, with its biggest parade on 12th July, commemorating the Battle of the Boyne, where Protestant William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II. While Orangmen regard William III as the man who secured Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, Catholics regard the parades surrounding the 12th (and other Unionist/Loyalist parades) as highly provocative, triumphalist and sectarian.
One reason for this is the flags and banners that are carried during the parades. Along with the Union Jack, on display are banners associated with Loyalism, sometimes of paramilitary groups. These symbols represent the Unionist’s/Loyalist’s wish for Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom, sometimes in aggressive ways (”No Surrender”).
Another contentious issue is the choice of songs being played by the bands accompanying the parades. Songs like The Sash, which by many is regarded anti-Catholic, has a highly provocative effect, especially when played in places like in front of Saint Patrick’s Church in Belfast in July 2013.
Orangemen defend to their traditions to parade on certain routes as a fundamental right. However, this has often been at a high cost in terms of injured and killed people, such as at Drumcree, which is held on the Sunday before the 12th. The annual parade in Portadown has caused violent clashes since the 19th century, the worst years being in the 1970s and 1980s. Having walked the route to and from Drumcree Church since 1807, the Orange Order insist on their right to continue this tradition, although nowadays this route is inhabited mainly by Catholics. Here and in many other areas affected by this problem, residents’ groups are formed by Nationalists, in order to work towards an end of parading routes that go through their areas.
Parading and politics can be closely connected. Some claim that a highly controversial Drumcree parade in 1995 helped Unionist politician David Trimble to become leader of the UUP. That year in July, 10,000 Orangemen and their supporters had gathered but were stopped from walking on Garvaghy Road (mainly inhabited by Catholics). After violent clashes with the police and Nationalists, Unionist politicians Ian Paisley (DUP) and David Trimble held a rally at Drumcree, unsuccessfully trying to push through the security line before they were taken away by the police. However, a compromise was reached to let the Orange parade continue down Garvaghy Road without music — at the head of the parade were Trimble and Paisley. While Unionists felt that Trimble was ”sticking up for them” and elected him as the leader of the UUP shortly afterwards, Nationalists on the other hand felt abandoned by both politicians and the RUC.
The following years saw more violence during Drumcree parades, with several people being killed by Loyalist paramilitaries, the most tragic incident happening in 1998 when three young boys died after their house was firebombed by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Despite police requests, some Loyalist bands kept playing music while parading past the boys’ grandmother’s house the days after the murders (see David McKittrick et al, Lost Lives, Mainstream Publishing, 2008, p. 1435). An intractable conviction like this shows the difficulty of finding a solution for the parading dispute.
Suggestions for the regulation of potentially contentious parades were made in the North Report in 1997. The report led to the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 and the establishment of the Parades Commission, a ‘quasi-judicial non-departmental body’, consisting of seven members, appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland:
”This Act recognises the importance of individuals rights, both to march and to protest against marches, and stresses the need for accommodation and tolerance at a local level. However, in situations where local agreement cannot be reached, the Act now transfers responsibility from the RUC to the Parades Commission, to take decisions concerning the imposition of conditions and the re-routing of contentious parades. The police will however liaise with the Parades Commission, and will still retain the power to take necessary steps on the day to preserve public order if need be.” (North Review)
Since its establishment, the Parades Commission has been criticised by Unionists/Loyalists, and the Orange Order refuses to recognise its authority. Due to this opposition, Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed on the establishment of a “Public Assemblies, Parades & Protests Body” at Hillsborough 2010. This body, however, was also rejected by the Orange Order, and never became law. While Nationalists/Republicans seem to be more willing to engage with the Parades Commission, this is by some Unionists regarded as ”using the Parades Commission to undermine unionist culture and traditions.” (PUP leader Billy Hutchinson). Indeed, the Orange Order’s Grand Master, Edward Stevenson, views the current situation as a cultural war by Republicans.
However, their strong individual, political, traditional and religious convictions make it difficult for both sides to agree with any of the Commission’s decisions made in favour of the other. This is especially difficult in times of other disputes, like for example the flags issue. Seeing ”their symbols” being removed in one area of society, makes Unionists/Loyalists more determined to demonstrate their conviction and belief during events like the 12th.
There are other factors that contribute to recurring violence during the parading season. Children and teenagers use the parading events as tests of courage, by for example throwing bricks or even petrol bombs; a 12-year-old was arrested in 2013 for such behaviour. Hot, dry weather, with subsequent drinking of alcohol, also increases the likelihood of violence.
One could believe that the near predictability of summer trouble has a tradition of its own:
”There are times of despair, times when you feel that nothing’s moved on; that it’s Groundhog Day.” Frances Nolan, member of The Parades Commission, interview for ”The Impartial Reporter”, 25 July 2013)
However, the Order and other fraternities hold many hundreds of parades every year that pass without incident. Indeed, the flagship parade in 2013 was held in Derry-Londonderry, and was deemed a great success.
Research by Barbara Zedler for Northern Ireland Foundation.