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'Parades, Protest and Parity of Esteem', by Jarman & Bryan

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Text: Neil Jarman and Dominic 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 neighbour.

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