The Twelfth of July is a holiday in Northern Ireland. A holiday that celebrates a the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. A Battle that commemorates the victory of the Protestant William 3rd (Prince of Orange) over the Catholic James 2nd during James’ attempts to regain the throne of the British Isles. William was successful and thus ensured Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.
In 1701 William passed the Act of Settlement which ensured that only protestants could ascend to the throne. In fact the act even prevented a monarch from being married to a Roman Catholic, something that was only changed in law in 2013. During a period of civil unrest between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland the Orange Order was formed in 1795 its aim to protect Protestant supremacy in Ireland.
I grew up in a Northern Ireland that was torn apart by ‘the troubles‘ a sectarian conflict which grew out of civil protest by the largely Roman Catholic civil rights movement. Established in 1964, the civil rights movement sought to combat what they saw as discrimination against Roman Catholics by Protestants and Unionists who dominated the mechanisms of state in the province. The protests led to conflict, rioting and eventually to sectarian violence by paramilitary forces on both sides. During this conflict over 3500 people were killed and almost 50,000 people were injured. The good friday agreement in 1998 laid the foundation for paramilitary ceasefires and arguably laid the foundations for peace in the province. The protestant & unionist community viewed the agreement with suspicion as it was widely believed that the Blair Government had done ‘dirty deals’ with republicans. It has emerged that Blairs Government had indeed agreed that republican terrorist suspects would be granted immunity from prosecution and just today (13th July 2014) it has been revealed that Blair is to be brought before a parliamentary committee to explain these ‘secret deals‘.
In 2014 people in Northern Ireland are still living in a sort of religious and social apartheid. Schools are largely segregated along religious lines, people in larger towns and cities tend to live in areas more or less segregated along religious lines. Many protestant and unionist people feel that the republican agenda has taken prominence with huge amounts of money being put into the development and refurbishment of republican areas whilst unionist communities are neglected. It is widely believed that there is an agenda of appeasement where republicans can ask for and receive any any concession they wish for and that this often comes at the expense of the unionist community.
Against such a background it is hardly surprising that there is a huge amount of suspicion on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. In the years since the good friday agreement these suspicions seem to raise their heads most strongly during the summer ‘marching season‘. Marches organised by the orange order have followed traditional routes for many years but as the demographics of the province have changed some of these routes have become controversial as they pass close to what are now nationalist areas. As a result a parades commission has been established to adjudicate on marches held to be controversial. Many nationalists want to see parades banned from passing close to nationalist areas as they see many of the parades as a celebration of unionist ascendancy and of the subjugation of Roman Catholicism in Ireland.
Many Unionists believe that the parades commission place unfair restrictions on the parades and that this represents an attack on unionist culture. There can be little doubt that in recent years parades have lead to clashes between unionists, nationalists and the security forces. Unionists and the Orange Order feel very strongly that flash points have been engineered by republicans to discredit the order and to advance the republican agenda. They point to the fact that few restrictions appear to be placed on republican parades. For my part I believe that the orange order should be allowed to march their traditional routes and that the order should march in silence past republican areas. It is hugely ironic that orange lodges can march safely and without protest in the Irish Republic, a much more Catholic community. For those outside Northern Ireland it is often difficult to understand why parades are such a contentious issue, for unionists it is about much more than parades, it is about what they see as an erosion of their rights and an attack on their culture and way of life.
I believe that I am a fierce supporter of equality. I abhor racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, white supremacism and discrimination of any sort. The route of the troubles in the land of my birth is the result of discrimination and the illusion of discrimination. Until all the people of Northern Ireland believe that they are being treated fairly by both the state, the agents of state and the ‘other side’ of the community in the province mistrust and suspicion will continue to affect the national mindset. Whilst that is the case reconciliation cannot be achieved.
I was delighted to rise this morning to find that the biggest potential flashpoint in the marching season, the 12th of July parades by the Orange Order, had passed largely without incident. Protests by Orange Order supporters where parades had been banned from passing were peaceful. The order should be congratulated for achieving this. It is to their credit that they have worked tirelessly to achieve a compromise acceptable to both sides. Community leaders on both sides of the political and religious divide should also be congratulated as their pleas for calm and peaceful protest seem to have been heeded.
As a Northern Irish protestant who was a member of orange bands in his youth and who’s father has been master of his Orange Lodge on a number of occasions I am proud of my heritage and culture. Having lived outside the province for two thirds of my life it is perhaps easy for me to hope and believe that it should be possible to achieve compromise, for everyone to live in peace with their neighbours and for everyone to be able to celebrate their culture without fear of persecution.
I hope and pray that the largely peaceful passing of this years marching season represents another step along the road to peace and reconciliation.