'Parades, Protest and Parity of Esteem', by Jarman & Bryan
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Belfast Telegraph 27.6.96
Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan
The animosity which currently surrounds
parading is not just a modern phenomena. In the 1820s and 1830s
violence at parades became so common that all parades were banned
for over 30 years. It was only from the 1880s, when Orangeism
was embraced by a wider spectrum of Protestant social classes,
that the Twelfth became a 'respectable' event.
The position of the Orange Order within
Northern Ireland since 1921 has provided an environment in which
loyalist parades have been encouraged and have flourished. Nationalist
parades on the other hand were regarded as threatening to the
order of the new state. They were often banned or restricted to
specific areas. But parades have continued to be marked by violent
clashes at times of political tension.
Although there is an extraordinary range
of loyalist parades, they are not all simply 'Orange' parades.
To view them as such is to ignore the complexities of the Protestant
community and the divisions within unionism. Parades, as with
all ritual events, can mean different things to many of the different
participants and different things still to observers.
A parade can give the impression of
unity over diversity but this is often a fragile bond. One which
hides but does not remove tensions. Within Orangeism there is
a friction between what is 'religious' and what is 'political'.
Some people argue that parades are fundamentally religious events
while to others the political function is foremost. To outsiders
a different, darker message altogether is often received.
The most consistent claim made for the
right to parade is that Orange parades are 'traditional'. The
parades are seen as central to Protestant identity. They give
a sense of belonging in a social world that appears increasingly
rootless and dislocated. They give reassurance in an insecure
political environment. But in spite of the emphasis on `tradition',
contemporary Orange parades would look very different from parades
of thirty years ago. However, this should not be regarded as a
problem, the vitality of traditions comes from the fact that they
can and do change.
The parades that are seen by the unionist
community to be an important expression of their cultural identity
are seen by nationalists as symbolic of their subordination. They
are regarded as sectarian, triumphalist and threatening. They
are reminders of the past dominance of Unionists under Stormont.
The fact that nationalists are still not allowed the same rights
to parade as loyalists is seen as evidence that little has changed
at the heart of Northern Ireland.
But many within the unionist community
feel anything but powerful. The old certainties have been steadily
eroded. The banning or the re-routing of a parade further undermines
their confidence, their traditions, their rights, their culture.
Each attempt to re-route a traditional parade becomes a threat
to the future of Northern Ireland. At the same time nationalists
are seen to be more assertive of their rights. A republican parade
through a town which has been bombed by the IRA is seen as another
threat to the future security of Ulster Protestants.
We are consequently left with an apparently
intractable situation. How can the cultural expression of part
of the Protestant community be facilitated whilst the sincerely
held feelings of many in the Catholic community are respected?
The problems of this year's marching
season appear intractable. They have already been protests in
more areas than this time last year. However, in spite of the
headlines, there have been some glimmers of hope: the organisers
of two band parades in Lurgan have made honest compromises, even
if they did not go far enough for protesters. Protests in Dunloy
and Roslea have passed peacefully even if those in North Belfast
did not. Away from the public eye talks are still going on.
Compromises, whether in the form of
voluntary re-routings, or self-imposed constraints, have been
made by parade organisers on a number of occasions. These should
be encouraged on the basis of good community relations. Compromise
should not be seen as a defeat or as sign of weakness. We need
to get away from the present zero-sum game.
The long term aim must be to make open
political and religious expression acceptable in all areas and
to both communities. But parades that are allowed through sensitive
areas should not proceed as if they have won a victory. The era
of one community dominating the community must be left behind
us. If parity of esteem is to have any real sense of meaning then
acknowledging cultural differences and respect for traditions
must be part of the equation. But so too must be a recognition
of past injustices, of existing fears and of respect for ones
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