Parades – A socialist view

Statement adopted by the Northern Regional Executive Committee of the Socialist Party The deadlock over parades is unlikely to be broken this summer. There have already been disputes especially over the ‘Tour of the North’ and the Springfield Road. Further confrontation over Drumcree, the Ormeau Road and other contentious routes is certain to follow.

Drumcree in particular may bring an upsurge of violence. Some of the anti agreement unionists see it as an opportunity to attack Trimble and deal a blow at the peace deal. The Parades Commission recommendation of the possibility of jam tomorrow in return for good behaviour today is not likely to be accepted by the Portadown Orangemen. Last year the Orangemen marched their forces away from Drumcree Hill in response to similar promises made privately by Tony Blair. They will hesitate before accepting any government hints or gestures that might end with the wool being pulled over their eyes yet again.

Fragmentation of the loyalist paramilitaries and the beginnings of a realignment of the LVF with a section of the UDA could mean increased paramilitary involvement in and around Drumcree and raises the likelihood of sectarian attacks against Catholics. Attempts to spread the protests, blocking roads, barricading areas, organising parades in other areas, are bound to overspill into attacks on Catholics.

If the Orangemen do not bite at the Parades Commission proposal and disperse their forces, the State will probably repeat the massive security operation of the past two years to enforce their ban. It would take a massive mobilisation and the threat of violence spreading beyond Portadown and getting out of control to compel the government to back down and force the parade down the Garvaghy Road. The problem for the Orangemen is that violence from them or from the paramilitaries on the wings of the protest could split the Orange Order and cut across the mass support they need to get their way.

It is extremely doubtful that the Portadown Orangemen could achieve and sustain a sufficient mobilisation to force the government to reverse the Parades Commission decision. The polarisation over Drumcree is as intense as before and there are many in the anti agreement camp who want to take this issue to the limit but there is not at the moment a general mood for confrontation. Just as it is in the interests of the anti- agreement forces to whip this issue up so Trimble and the pro agreement unionists will try to put a brake on any protests that might spill out of control.

It is most likely that the military line erected by the State at Drumcree will hold and that the parade will not be allowed onto the Garvaghy Road this summer. The other disputed parades will probably be similarly dealt with. Agreement between parade organisers and residents over any of the routes that have been most hotly disputed in recent years is unlikely. The decisions of the Parades Commission will probably be enforced with whoever feels aggrieved unable to apply enough pressure to have them reversed.

While this is the most likely scenario the possibility that the sectarian violence could achieve a momentum of its own cannot be entirely discounted. In this circumstance we need to be prepared to raise the call for action by working class people through trade union and community organisations to demand a halt to sectarian attacks.

It is more probable that, after a period of upheaval over Drumcree, this year’s marching season may pass by without unleashing a general confrontation but with nothing resolved. The fact that the State can draw a line in the sand and hold it by military means is not a solution. The whole issue – and especially the Drumcree march – will remain like an unexploded bomb, neither ignited nor defused, but as unstable and potentially devastating as ever.

In fact if anything the issue is now further away from resolution than ever. During the first major confrontations over parades in 1996 and 97 the whole community was taken to the edge of a sectarian abyss. Having had a glimpse of where things were heading, working class people, both Catholic and Protestant, drew back. The calls of hardliners on both sides for confrontation no matter what the consequences became a little more isolated and a certain mood for compromise developed. In a number of areas discussions between residents and local Orangemen and Apprentice Boys did take place. A few local agreements were arrived at.

This year the same pressure for compromise has not developed. In part this is because there is not the same expectation of sectarian violence, not the same tension and therefore not the same pressure from the wider working class community on hardliners on both sides to hold back. But is also because of wider developments in the peace process and within society.

The Good Friday Agreement is a deal at the top between sectarian parties. Its premise is that the sectarian division within society is permanent and the best that we can hope for is that the sectarian politicians thrown up by this division, and who strive day and daily to maintain it, can hold hands across the divide.

Throughout the peace process the role of the main parties has been to maintain and whip up sectarianism in order to marshal their own supporters on the key issues they have taken into the negotiations. The Troubles in the form of the paramilitary and State violence of the past decades may have largely ended but the sectarian conflict has continued, albeit in a different form.

The conflict has very largely turned into a drawn out war of attrition over territory. An expanding Catholic population is inevitably spilling over into new areas. Streets and estates that were once overwhelmingly Protestant are becoming mixed, in many cases en route to them becoming predominantly Catholic.

Flags, murals and other symbols either of nationalism or of unionism/loyalism have become potent weapons in this conflict. The mushrooming of UVF/UDA/UFF flags in Protestant working class areas and on the main routes through these areas is all about territorial control. In part it is about the bitter conflict between the UDA-LVF and the UVF over which paramilitary controls these areas. But it is also about marking out Protestant territory and discouraging Catholics from moving in. It is an extension of the more direct intimidation of petrol bombings and threats that are also taking place.

A similar mapping out of territory has also been taking place on the catholic/nationalist side, although recently it has not matched the intensity which the UDA UVF conflict has brought in Protestant areas. Still many areas are decked out with tricolours and other nationalist symbols. This, no less than the flying of union jacks, is a declaration that these are now the territory of one side, in this case of nationalists. It too is a form of intimidation, a sleight to those Protestants who still live in these areas and a discouragement to any who might otherwise choose to do so.

The conflict over parades is part of the wider conflict and has more to do with territory than with the ‘rights’ stressed by either side. If sectarianism is not overcome the fact of an expanding catholic population will mean that the conflict over territory will continue. Parade routes that are uncontentious today will be opposed tomorrow. There will be new flashpoints, new Drumcrees, unless a resolution of the issue is found and unless steps are taken to overcome the sectarian division and to unite working class communities in the common struggle for a better society.

The Protestant perception is increasingly that theirs is a community now on the defensive. The bigoted elements who argue for no negotiations and no compromise over parades get a certain echo because of the feeling that concessions given today will be followed by demands for more concessions tomorrow. While the Orange Order are split over whether to recognise the Parades Commission and whether to directly negotiate with residents they are not split over the right to march.

Among the Catholic residents groups there has been a hardening of attitudes and this is now an important factor barring the way to any compromise. The residents groups were first formed as part of a wider nationalist offensive. Republicans took the first initiative on this question on the Ormeau Road as a sectarian response to the united movement of Catholics and Protestants against the Sean Graham massacre.

The resident’s groups used legitimate grievances at the sectarian and triumphalist nature of Orange parades to whip up feeling and consolidate Catholic residents behind the demand that the parades be halted. Their public position was for dialogue but to the most hardline of those in these groups this was never more than a cover for their real view, that there should be no parades.

This was not a unanimous position. Even amongst republicans some have held a softer view. When the mood within the community built up for genuine dialogue and some resolution the advocates of the no parade under any circumstances position were more isolated. The change was reflected in a switch in slogans, from the initial ‘no consent, no parade’, which in effect meant a veto by residents, to ‘no talk, no walk’, which as it stands is a call for dialogue.

At the moment the emphasis of the key resident’s spokespersons leans more to the earlier intransigent stance. There are a number of reasons. It flows from the sectarian approach of those nationalists who see the peace process as a step by step erosion of unionism, an offshoot of the idea that in twenty or thirty ‘we’ll outbreed them and bring a united Ireland”.

The reality is that it is the republican movement who have made the greater concessions in the negotiations, surrendering much of the ground of republicanism in exchange for paltry concessions and little change. But the perception among Catholics is different. While there is still a deep sense of injustice there is also a growing sense of power and a feeling that the sectarian table is beginning to be turned and that it is unionism and loyalism that are on the back foot.

Former SDLP councillor Brian Feeney, who now writes a weekly column in the Irish News, is a tribune of this modern brand of triumphalist nationalism. In an article dealing with the rerouting of the Tour of the North parade he advises the Orange Order to go away and march in the Belfast suburbs where Protestants have moved and concludes: “They’re not going to. For the old men who run the order to accept reality would mean accepting theirs is a community in retreat; that change has happened, that Belfast is now a nationalist city…..”

This more strident- and virulently sectarian – nationalism translates into a more determined attitude over parades. In turn it is reinforced by a sense that the marching orders are literally loosing ground. The Drumcree march has been barred in successive years and the absence of any strategy to get their way has led to significant splits in the Orange Order.

In fact in most cases where rulings have gone against a march the decision has tended to become permanent and to be repeated in subsequent years. Once a march has been banned the arguments of the resident’s groupings are strengthened and there is less pressure on them to give ground in future years. They can welcome the Parades Commission decisions where they go their way and continue to dispute those that go against, maintaining protests in the hope that a parade once rerouted will never be allowed again.

Publicly the position of the residents groups is for dialogue, but from time to time the mask has slipped. Gerard Rice for the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community in a recent opinion column in the Irish News states that ‘LOCC welcomes and encourages all forms of dialogue” and then adds the rider “but it is important to understand that dialogue is not an end to itself. Parades, not the absence of dialogue, are the problem.”

Dialogue, he states, must be to “address the root causes of the problems.” And since the root of the problem is parades presumably the dialogue must be discuss that there will be no parade. This is the logic of the argument and it is the conclusion that Gerard Rice as good as draws. Explaining that having parades with no sectarian music, or no abuse of residents is not enough he goes on “in particular we believe we need to explore creative and alternative forms of expression which do not carry the sectarian baggage inevitably associated with parades.”

The Socialist Workers Party and other ultra left sects have welcomed the controversy over parades and have sided totally with the residents, opposing any compromise. The gist of their argument is that the Orange Order is a right wing neo fascist institution akin to the British National Party or the Ku Klux Klan. To them every blocked march is a victory to be toasted. The result, they claim, is a divided Orange Order which is loosing its base of support in the protestant working class and is haemorrhaging members.

This is a false view, a triumph of wishful thinking over reality. The Orange Order is a sectarian and reactionary organisation. Historically it has been a prop for the unionist establishment and an instrument of its sectarian abuses. However it is an exaggeration to describe it as fascist or neo fascist. Were this really the case socialists would equally oppose Orange marches in Protestant areas as in Catholic.

It is in the interests of the working class to see the influence of the Orange Order, as with every sectarian institution, diminished. However the annual confrontation over parades has had the opposite effect. The Orange Order has suffered a series of defeats in their efforts to force parades along disputed routes but this does not mean that Protestants no longer support their right to march or that working class Protestants now sympathise with the position of the residents committees. In fact the banning of parades has generated sympathy for the Orange Order even among working class Protestants who would have otherwise have nothing to do with it.

Insofar as the failure of the Orange Order to get their way at Drumcree and other areas can be described as a victory it is a victory for nationalism, for one form of sectarianism over another, and not a victory for the working class. Moreover it has been brought about by the State forces, the RUC and the British Army; not by any independent action by working class people. The effect will be to draw both sides further apart, to retreat into ‘their own’ areas, to sharpen the territorial division and to prepare for future sectarian conflict.

The only way for resolve the parades issue is through dialogue and agreement. This will only be brought about through the pressure of the working class isolating those on both sides who are using this issue to whip up sectarianism. Just as the issue arises from the overall conflict so it will only be solved as part of a generalised movement of the working class against sectarianism.

With the Assembly in place and the sectarian parties administering local services the grip they have over working class areas can begin to loosen. How far this process will go will ultimately depend on whether a working class alternative to sectarian politics can be built. The existence of the Executive, coinciding with the coming economic downturn and a sharpening of the class struggle internationally, will provide a unique opportunity for the building of a socialist alternative.

Any new political movement of the working class will have to deal with the parades question and with the other issues that are used to divide the working class. This will require a class approach, evaluating each question from the standpoint of the united interests of working class people. The Socialist Party has done this in relation to parades and the programme we worked out when the problem first erupted at Drumcree remains the only basis for a resolution.

The Parades Commission is no answer. Its very existence militates against local discussion and agreement. There is a tendency on both sides to hold back and await the Parades Commission verdict. Then, whichever side it favours invariably welcomes the decision and demands it be enforced, while the other condemns the body. If and when the decision goes the other way the arguments are quickly reversed.

This is a problem of conflicting rights. The Orange Order has a right to march. Residents also have a right to object to what the see as coat trailing exercises through their areas. These rights must be balanced and this can only be done through discussion, compromise and agreement.

Where a march is through a residential area local people should have a right to say no to parades that they find offensive. In doing so due regard should be had for the rights of any minorities living in that area. The views of a simple majority in an area cannot be used to ride roughshod over the rights of religious, ethnic or other minorities.

However in nearly all cases the disputed parades are not through estates but are along arterial routes which main run through built up housing areas or are in town and city centres. In these cases arguments can be made on both sides and there is a need for dialogue, although in the case of town, city and villages centres the general position should be that they are open to all the cultures and traditions of the people who live in the area and discussions should be about how this right of access can be exercised in a way that is sensitive to people of other and opposing cultures and traditions.

There are two obstacles to dialogue. One is the highhanded and sectarian refusal of the Orange Order to meet with local residents. The other is the approach of at least some residents that the dialogue must be about having no march. It is not possible to stand for dialogue and at the same time hold the position that there can never be a march and that Orangemen should, in Gerard Rice’s words “find some way of expressing their culture other than parades”.

Negotiations should consider the regularity and route of marches. In the case of Drumcree it would now need to discuss all the marches that take place over a year along both the Garvaghy Road and the Corcrain Road. It would also be necessary to discuss wider issues such equal access to Portadown town centre to all communities without intimidation.

The conduct of marchers should also be discussed. It would not be difficult to reach agreement that there should be no music played in disputed parts of the route or that there should be no paramilitary displays. Marchers and residents groups should separately steward their own supporters. There should be no RUC involvement in this, no background security operation, no restriction of the movement of residents in and out of their area.

If the will existed on both sides it would not be difficult to arrive at local agreements along these lines in every disputed area. This is not being done because of the wider issues involved. Anti agreement unionists are prepared to take things to the brink over Drumcree, not because they are deeply concerned about this march, but because it provides a readily accessible weapon to undermine Trimble.

There are rights on both sides but there is also an overarching right; that of the working class community to be dragged into a sectarian conflict over this issue.  Trade unionists and genuine community activists who represent broader working class interests have a responsibility to apply pressure on both sides to reach agreement and bring this annual series of confrontations to an end.

At times it can be difficult to take a principled class stand on the issue. When the sectarian tempo is raised it may mean paying the price of temporary isolation within working class communities. However our responsibility and that of class-conscious activists is to hold to a principled position and not bend to the sectarian pressures of either side.

This is what the Socialist Party has done in the past. After the Drumcree parade was forced along the Garvaghy Road in 1996 a powerful mood developed in Catholic areas that the August Apprentice Boys parade should be me met with a mass blocade barring its way to the centre of Derry. We withstood this mood and called for dialogue. We met the Bogside Residents and pressed our view. We also went onto the streets in the centre of Derry with a call for dialogue.

Meanwhile the Socialist Workers Party were arguing enthusiastically for the blocade, holding meetings in Belfast and Dublin to encourage people to go to Derry to ‘halt orange marches’. Unlike such groups we refused to ride the sectarian wave. Our position was quickly vindicated when talks did take place and the mood in the city to favour compromise.

In 1998, and again last year, we intervened at Drumcree. We sent a delegation including our TD Joe Higgins to meet local people and argue the case for face-to-face negotiations and local agreement. Last year our position was covered in the local press and received a good response. If the trade union and community movement was prepared to resist the sectarian pressures and strongly uphold the right of working class people not to have their lives disrupted every year because of sectarian intransigence on both sides the issue could be resolved.

We are not for the victory of one sectarian view over another. We are for the isolation and defeat of the hardline intransigents on both sides and for the united interests of the working class to take precedence over narrow sectarian interests.

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