‘The Twelfth’: Celebration or Provocation?
The arrival of the summer season in Northern Ireland brings with it the high-point of another season – the ‘marching season’. Union Jacks on lampposts, kerb-stones painted red, white and blue, and enormous bonfires, often featuring the Irish tricolour at their peaks; each year throughout the end of June and the beginning of July we witness mass preparations for the 12th July celebrations. ‘The Twelfth’ is a Protestant celebration in which marching bands and Members of the Orange Order commemorate the victory of King William of Orange over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. While on one hand this annual event can be seen as a community-driven and family orientated celebration, from a nationalist point of view it is often considered to be contentious and provocative.
Although Northern Ireland is undoubtedly making progress towards sustained peace, underlying tensions between different sides of the sectarian divide often come to the fore during the marching season, and this year was no exception. On 14th July, Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness met to discuss recent violence. Last weekend saw trouble erupt in loyalist areas such as Ballyclare and Newtonabbey, while there was also trouble in nationalist areas of Belfast on both Monday and Tuesday night. The riots on each side of the divide centred on two different incidents, in the case of the unionist rioters; they had felt aggrieved that the PSNI decided to remove certain flags that had been erected on lampposts, whereas the nationalist rioters in Belfast disagreed with the permitted routes for specific unionist marching bands, feeling that they should not be permitted to pass through nationalist areas.
While we do see a relatively large number of sectarian flags flying from lampposts etc throughout Northern Ireland (despite being forbidden according to Flag Protocol) this number undoubtedly increases during the marching season. It could be argued that the flags are erected simply to celebrate a community’s heritage and tradition; and while everyone may not be in agreement, or acceptance, unionism is a part of Northern Ireland’s history; therefore the flying of Union Jacks is inevitable. However, it is not with the flying of Union Jacks, or indeed Northern Ireland flags, where the real problem lies. It is when flags representing paramilitary organisations are erected that divisions are widened and tensions raised. While cultural celebration is acceptable, and should be encouraged, sectarianism is not. Therefore for the good of the region, and also for the good of the marching season, any sectarian hate and paramilitary support that goes hand in hand with the 12th July celebrations must be stamped out. Making it a less sectarian event will not only benefit Northern Ireland as a whole but it will most certainly benefit the unionist communities at the heart of these celebrations. However, even when the issues surrounding flags and emblems have been addressed, there is still the small issue of the actual parades themselves.
It is the job of the Parades Commission to ban marches in areas where they are deemed to be contentious. Due to the close physical proximity of nationalist and unionist communities in certain areas throughout NI, often separated by a single street, or in some cases, a single wall; determining where parades can be held is an unenviable task. Despite the best efforts of the Parades Commission to steer the marches away from contentious areas, this is not always possible. There are many areas throughout Northern Ireland in which the permission given to marching bands to parade on the 12th July causes clashes amongst divided communities, an example of such an area this year was Ardoyne in Belfast. An argument must surely be made that confining unionist marches to exclusively unionist areas will avoid much of the tension that comes as a result of current routes. After all, can a unionist band parading in a nationalist area be perceived as anything else other than blatant provocation and contention? The Parades Commission faces a constant uphill struggle, and, if the truth be told, a small commission made up of seven individuals will never achieve a fully peaceful marching season in Northern Ireland.
The only way that trouble can be avoided during the marching season is to make it less sectarian. This will require huge progression from both sides of our divided community in Northern Ireland. Firstly, we must see an effort on the part of unionists to attempt to include all sectors of society to enjoy the celebrations, highlighting that the marching season can play a role in adding to the region’s cultural and historical appeal to tourists and visitors, as well as providing great family days out to be enjoyed by all. This can be initiated by a sustained effort from members of the Orange Order and unionist communities to stamp out the sectarian representation that we see associated with the build up to, and the celebration of ‘The Twelfth’. While the inclusion of nationalists in ‘The Twelfth’ celebrations is highly unlikely, attempting to eradicate the intimidation and provocation associated with the event may go some way in making it slightly less divisive and contentious.
On the other hand, it is vital that the nationalist communities look at the bigger picture. It must be argued that accepting all cultures and traditions within Northern Ireland can only strengthen the foundations for a united future. While it is fully understandable that unionist traditions will never be embraced by the majority of nationalist communities, should they be by accepted them, perhaps the unionist determination to remain part of the union would be dampened. A display of assurance that unionist culture would be accepted by the nationalist communities would undoubtedly ease their fears that a united Ireland would result in their isolation and persecution. Therefore it surely must be worth thinking about on the nationalist front; that a little lee-way in relation to the marching season, could lead to considerable progression regarding the prospect of one day achieving unity once again. Yet this acceptance could prove to be too much to ask of communities that have felt victimised and oppressed under unionism in the past.
In their meeting this week, I sincerely hope that our two most senior politicians did not simply discuss how to deal with the aftermath of the trouble witnessed last weekend and on Monday and Tuesday night. Rather, what they should have discussed is how they can avoid the need to hold a meeting of the same nature this time next year, and I for one fully believe that forward thinking must be at the top of the agenda. Northern Ireland’s politicians must ensure that they are learning lessons from the increased unrest and rioting in recent weeks and months. Although responsibility must be put on communities to help ensure progress is made, their representatives must offer leadership, and it is up to our politicians to ensure that this progression is made. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness must not simply discuss what has happened in the last few days, but what has not happened. Progressive thinking and pushing the boundaries is the only way that our politicians will make substantial headway on the issues regarding the marching season, change does not happen by itself, it must be made to happen.
Posted on July 16, 2011, in Comment, Devolved Government, General, Northern Ireland and tagged community, maraches, marching season, Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland, Orange Order, parades, Peter Robinson, riots, Stormont, Stormont Executive, The Twelfth, troubles. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.