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'Statistics show how Ulster Parades keep Marching on', by Jarman & Bryan

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Text: Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan
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Belfast Telegraph 14.8.1996
Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan

Another marching season nears an end. More tense then many, it has left some communities as divided as ever. And how is it all seen from outside? That we are trapped in our history, that nothing ever changes, its just the same old 'traditional' confrontation. But how true is this? Some simple figures suggest the situation is more complex.

Statistics collected by the RUC since 1985 show that the number of parades has increased quite considerably. In 1995 there were 2581 parades categorised as 'loyalist' and 302 as 'nationalist', giving a total of 2883. The total of 3500 quoted in some of the press includes 617 parades given a category of 'other' which covers events such as the Lord Mayor's parade, and parades by youth organisations.

These figures make an interesting comparison with 1986 when there were 1731 'loyalist' parades and 219 'nationalist' parades (although at the time they were categorised as 'Republican'). As such, in 1995 there were 684 more loyalist parades than ten years earlier, and 79 more nationalist parades.

A comparison between the 1986 figures and 1994 figures shows a gross increase in the number of parades of 43%, quoted in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday. If we include the 1995 figures the gross increase since 1986 is nearly 48%. Between 1986 and 1995 loyalist parades increased by just over 49% and nationalist parades by just under 38%. Whilst some years show a particularly big jump, for instance 1990 the tercentenary of the Battle of the Boyne, there does appear to be a long term trend upwards.

So the figures show that there are more loyalist parades than there used to be, and also that the proportion of loyalist parades as opposed to nationalist parades has increased. What can be read into this?

We must first question the reliability of the figures. Collecting statistics such as these is not an easy task and one cannot assume the figures to be totally reliable. For instance it is not easy to define a parade. It has been noted that already this year that the loyal orders count a parade up the street and then a return parade as one event. However, the residents groups count it as two. It is quite possible that in different police districts the actual accounting of parades has not remained the same. There is no conspiracy involved. In many towns in Northern Ireland the number of parades is not a great issue.

Nevertheless there has been quite a consistent rise in the numbers, suggesting that it is something more than simply a data collection issue. So where and when are the extra parades and why are they taking place? One possible answer is the well recognised increase in the number of band parades. Most loyalist flute bands are quite independent from the loyal institutions and there has been a distinctive development of what are known as 'blood and thunder', or 'kick the Pope' bands. Many run an annual band competition in their own area to try and raise money for new uniforms and instruments. These band parades may well account for some of the increase.

However, figures supplied by the RUC Statistics Unit point to another possibility. The number of parades on the Twelfth itself seem to have risen. In 1990 there were 361 parades, 1991 - 386, 1992 - 429, 1993 - 389, 1994 - 463, and in 1995 there were 547. The majority of these parades are feeder parades which take place before and after the main parades. In 1995 over 21% of the annual total of loyalist parades took place on the Twelfth.

The number of parades in a particular area is likely to vary depending upon the venue for the Twelfth. Even taking this into account there would seem to be an increase in the number of feeder parades. While we have to speculate a little as to why there is an increase in the number of parades, it does suggest that to see parades simply in terms of 'tradition' is misleading. The political environment in which these cultural expressions take place is clearly important. There seems to be a contradiction. Unionist politicians claim that loyalists 'traditions' are under threat yet loyalists' parading culture seems more vibrant than ever.

How might we explain this apparent contradiction? First of all, political expression that takes place through parades is a reflection of a perceived threat. Since the 1970s many of the bands take up names and symbols that suggest that they are 'defenders' of their community.

It has been argued by many people that the two communities behave as they do because they are both minorities: Catholics in Northern Ireland and Protestants on the island of Ireland Consequently the cultural expressions of both communities are intensified. Uncertainty and change in the present are reflected in claims of 'tradition'.

A second possibility is that the break-up of unionism has led to more localised expressions of politics. The large Twelfth parade with its Ulster Unionist speaker no longer reflects the politics of a lot of Orangemen. They identify more closely with the politics of their local town and local council and this is reflected in having more local parades.

Whatever the reasons it is clear that public, political, expression is a problem. Any overall solution has to tackle this problem. It has to balance the right of political expression, with the right not to feel threatened. At the very least that will demand much more respect and much more tolerance.

Total number of parades in Northern Ireland between 1985-95

YearTotalLoyalist Republican Other
19953500 2581302 617
19942792 2520272 .
19932662 2411251 .
19922744 2498246 .
19912379 2183196 .
19902713 2467246 .
19892317 2099218 .
19882055 1865190 .
19872112 1863249 .
19861950 1731219 .
19852120 1897223 .

Figures taken from The Chief Constable's Annual Report

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