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Re-routed Protestant Parade Threatens Tenuous Irish Peace

Controversy linked to arson in 10 Catholic churches

BY Cian Molloy

July 12, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/12/98 at 1:00 PM

 

DUBLIN, Ireland—Nothing symbolizes the changes that have taken place in Northern Ireland more than the events of July 5. The region has had cease fires, devolved government, and promises of long-term peace before, but never in 150 years has the Orange Order been prevented from marching along their traditional parade route along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

The order, a Protestant fraternity, stages thousands of marches in Northern Ireland every year. Most take place peacefully, but some are bitterly controversial and none more so than the parade from the Church of Ireland church at Drumcree each year on the first Sunday of July.

Nationalists, who are predominantly Catholic and who seek a united Ireland, see the parades as expressions of Protestant triumphalism, celebrating the privileged position they have enjoyed since the foundation of the Northern Irish state 75 years ago. (In general, Protestants enjoy better housing and employment prospects.) During parades, sectarian songs have been played by Orange bands, who sometimes describe themselves as “Kick the Pope bands.”

The order has moved to disassociate itself from sectarian elements, but memories are long in Northern Ireland and inter-community relations were not helped when, two years ago, the Orange Order's grand master, Robert Saulters, said British Prime Minister Tony Blair had been “disloyal to his religion” when he married Cherie Booth, a Catholic.

There are further signs that the order still has a long way to go to control unruly elements within its ranks. On the way to their prayer service at Drumcree July 5, members caused further tension shouting the name “Robbie Hamill” as they passed the Catholic Church off the Garvaghy Road. Robert Hamill, a Catholic youth, was kicked to death by a Protestant mob in May last year. His murder and similar attacks on Catholics in Portadown have made the Garvaghy Road residents and Catholics across Northern Ireland increasingly anxious about the annual Drumcree parade.

In the last two years, when the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force, used truncheons and plastic bullets to clear Garvaghy Road residents off the parade route, there was widespread civil unrest in Catholic areas across the region.

This year, the parade was banned by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, which was set up by Britain's new Labor government last year. The Commission's ruling had been postponed until late June, by Blair's order, to prevent it from influencing the outcome of the Northern Ireland referendum on the peace agreement and the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Commission said the main reason for the ban was the refusal of local Orangemen to engage in any dialogue with the Catholic residents or their representatives. The order said they would not speak to Brendan Mac Cionnaith, chairman of the Garvaghy Coalition, because he is a former member of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which has been responsible for terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Mac Cionnaith said that in the past the order has also refused to speak to his predecessor, Jesuit Father Eamonn Stack.

In the week leading up to the parade date, hundreds of extra British troops were deployed to the Portadown area. Army engineers sealed off the route: digging trenches, building a steel wall fortified with freight containers lined with concrete, and laying out several miles of razor wire.

The security forces were criticized by Mac Cionnaith, however, for allowing more than 5,000 Orangemen to gather at the Drumcree churchyard. Shortly before 1:00 p.m., they paraded to the roadblock to offer a letter of protest. However, in a bid to avoid confrontation, the RUC remained behind the blockades. As the Register went to press, more than a thousand Orangemen were camped in fields around Drumcree vowing to stay there until the march is allowed to proceed. But the RUC's chief constable Ronnie Flanagan says that under no circumstances will he reverse the Parade Commission's decision.

One reason the RUC remain resolved in upholding the ban is that the force has been threatened with far-reaching reforms—even of being disbanded. At present, only 7% of officers are Catholic, despite the fact that Catholics make up more than 45% of Northern Ireland's population. If the RUC is to survive in its present form, the force must be seen to be upholding the law impartially.

So far, the Orangemen's protests have been peaceful. One reason for this is the widespread revulsion at arson attacks against 10 Catholic churches that followed the Parade Commission's announcement that the parade would be rerouted. Father John McManus, spokesman for the Down and Connor diocese, said that attacks on Catholic churches occurred regularly, “but this is the most concentrated attack to date.”

Bishop Patrick Walsh of Down and Connor said the attacks had been deliberately planned to heighten tension in the run up to the Drumcree parade. The attacks were condemned by Church leaders of all denominations and by the Orange Order's own grand lodge, which said it opposed attacks on all forms of religious freedom, including their right to walk along the Garvaghy Road.

Last year, the Orange Order voluntarily agreed not to hold another controversial parade along the mainly-Catholic Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast July 12. “The Twelfth” is a public holiday in Northern Ireland when Protestants celebrate the victory of King William of Orange over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Already, the Parades Commission has hinted it may allow the Lower Ormeau Road parade to take place, claiming that some of their forthcoming rulings would not favor the Nationalists.

The events of Drumcree this year will have long-term implications for David Trimble, the first minister of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Trimble was involved in the 1996 stand off at Drumcree and when the march was allowed along the route, he led it. His role at that time helped secure his current leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. Since then, he has become more of a moderate and faces much hostility from hard-line unionists for his role in brokering the peace agreement. Aprominent Protestant leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, has branded him a “traitor to Ulster.”

The Assembly held its first meeting July 1, with its only business to elect the first minister, deputy first minister, and speaker. How it will deal with more sensitive issues of Northern Irish politics remains to be seen.

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.