Northern Ireland’s Marching Season Crisis

Stuart Ross

IT IS DIFFICULT for those fortunate enough to live in more sophisticated communities to understand and appreciate the deep sense of fear, outrage and humiliation that marks these annual incursions into the little streets of this little town. .  .  .

So begins an editorial which appeared in the Belfast-based Irish News a number of years ago.

The “annual incursions,” of course, refer to the sectarian and triumphalist parades of the virulently anti-Catholic Orange Order.  The streets in question were Obins St.—where Orange marches have since been rerouted—and the Garvaghy Road, two small Catholic/nationalist enclaves in the loyalist stronghold of Portadown.

For the previous two summers, British Crown forces had mounted major security operations to ensure “Orange feet” marched along roads such as Portadown’s Garvaghy Road. These operations have been widely condemned by national and international human rights organizations and by Irish, European, Canadian, American and South African parliamentarians who have witnessed the British Army and/or Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, the Six County police force) in action.

This year, however, was different.

A week before the Portadown Orangemen were to embark on their now infamous Drumcree parade, the British government’s newly-appointed Parades Commission ruled that it would be rerouted away from the contentious Garvaghy Road.

“Given the absence of any positive move towards accommodation we cannot see at this stage how a parade could proceed again this year without having a very serious impact on community relationships, both locally and more widely across Northern Ireland,” said the Commission’s chairperson, Alistair Graham.

The ruling was welcomed by Portadown nationalists, albeit cautiously.  Two summers ago-after several days of loyalist violence-the RUC Chief Constable had bowed to Orange pressure and reversed a similar decision.

Orangemen and hard-line loyalists, however, were incensed and vowed to defy the Parades Commission ruling.

“Portadown District [Orange Lodge] are prepared to stand at Drumcree for 365 days, if necessary, for the principle and the right to return and walk along the Garvaghy Road back into Portadown,” said Denis Watson, the County Grand Master of the Orange Order in Armagh.

While the Orange Order claimed that they advocated non-violent opposition to the Parades Commission’s ruling, it was in fact the violent demonstrations of Orangemen and their supporters which made all the difference in 1996.

Days before the rerouted march was to go ahead, a number of Catholic churches were firebombed.  It was but a prelude to what one Irish human rights organization called “a week long orgy of sectarian attacks on Catholics, their homes, places of work and churches by those demanding that the Orange Order be allowed to parade down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.”

Sadly, it took the tragic and shocking deaths of three young brothers-burnt to death in a loyalist firebomb attack on their home-for some Orangemen and their supporters to rethink the siege of the Garvaghy Road area and related protests.

There would be no Orange march down the Garvaghy Road this year.

Discrimination and Domination

Parading disputes in the North of Ireland are as old as the Orange Order itself.  To the British government, the problem is regarded as a conflict between opposing rights; the `right to parade’ and the `right not to suffer parades.’ Yet many nationalists, particularly those living in small, isolated and/or vulnerable communities, disagree.

In Portadown, where the Catholic/ nationalist population is a minority, Orange parades that pass “through areas which are overwhelmingly Catholic take on an added significance—the dark suspicion that these parades are an attempt by the majority to stamp their influence and … their supremacy upon the minority.” (Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition, Irish News, 7/2/96)

Indeed, a document recently drafted by the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (Belfast) argues: “The parades issue is not about balancing the right to march and the right to protest.  It is about balancing the right of sectarian organizations to march and the rights of residents not to be intimidated and abused by organizations whose very purpose in marching is to reinforce the inequalities that exist in our society.”

While the defense of civil and religious liberty is one of the stated principal aims of the Orange Order, the Order’s political role in the North of Ireland “has often served to deny civil, religious and political liberties to others.” (Pat Finucane Centre, For God and Ulster, 2)

In times of crisis the Orange Order’s role has been to unite the various strands of unionism and oppose concessions to nationalists.  Most recently, the Order rejected the Good Friday Agreement as a “very green-tinged document” and called on all pro-Union voters to vote against it.

Equality and Respect

During the summer, Orange parades are almost weekly events in Portadown.  Nearly forty parades are organized each year by the Orange Order or its sister organizations.

The marches take place in the town center or other areas that are predominantly Protestant/unionist, and are welcomed by that community.  It is only the Orange Order’s parades along the Garvaghy Road which Catholics/nationalists actively oppose.

“What is at issue is the partial rerouting of only two out of dozens of parades which are held annually; a partial rerouting of two parades away from the Garvaghy Road where their presence is not welcomed but opposed by the vast majority of those who live there.” (GRRC, Irish News, 7/2/96)

Since coming together in 1995, the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition has committed itself to using peaceful means to seek a permanent end to Portadown’s parades crisis.  They would like to see “dialogue and agreement-ratherthan confrontation and violence-become the basis for parading [in the North].”

To date, the Orange Order has refused to meet with the residents’ group to discuss contentious parades.  They refuse to accept the rights of nationalists to choose their own representatives.

“The real problem,” said Breandan Mac Cionnaith of the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition, “is the ability of the Orange Order to sit down and engage in dialogue with a proper commitment.  No, the Orange Order by the actual step of sitting down with me and other people from this community are having to acknowledge that we’re their equals.  Now, that is a major problem for them.”

The Orange Order and its supporters, it seems, have yet to learn that the days of trampling over the rights of others are over.

Stuart Ross is a member of Solidarity in Rochester, New York, active in the Irish solidarity movement.  This article was written before the horrific August 15 bombing in Omagh, whch has led the Pat Finucane Center to demand “immediate and total ceasefires” by all paramilitary organizations.

ATC 76, September-October 1998