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'Marching to the Beat of Different Traditions', by Bryan & Jarman

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Text: Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan
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Irish News, 9.9.96
Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan

The past two summers have been dominated by the sound of angry voices and marching feet, by the rival claims of consent and tradition. In short we have had the most divisive marching seasons since the parades and demonstrations that sparked the Troubles in 1968-69. As street protests and sectarian clashes continue beyond the provocation of parades are there any indications of hope that next year will not be as bad?

Drumcree has been widely cited as a watershed but it may, in fact, prove to be a hollow victory for the loyal orders. The events of the week between Drumcree and the Twelfth united the nationalist community in a way thought impossible only a few weeks earlier. It finally provoked an open political intervention into the parades disputes by the British government. And it has left some Orangemen concerned and unhappy at the direction the organisation has taken.

Throughout last summer and until July this year, Sir Patrick Mayhew had insisted that disputes over parades were local issues and problems of public order. The decision to set up an independent review into the policing, management, decision making and legal framework of parades was a clear acknowledgement that they were more than this. While the search for local agreements should continue, the wider picture also needed to be addressed.

There have been reservations expressed over the review body: nationalists feel that an international figure should have been involved, unionists fear it will not be sympathetic to their arguments. Nevertheless if the debate is to move on it is important that as wide a range of groups and individuals as possible put their arguments to the North review body. To date none of the significant parties has indicated that they will boycott it, and the Royal Black Institution have said that they will make a submission, as have a number of the residents groups. It is therefore unlikely that the other major players will refuse to participate.

It will be particularly important that interested groups give close consideration to the implications of claiming rights because of 'tradition' or 'consent'. And the review team will certainly not have an easy task accommodating those claims. But the issue will not be resolved from the top down, by an imposed solution, it will also depend on the willingness of the opposing groups to engage in dialogue and to work with whatever compromises are suggested. Is this likely?

There have been some promising signs recently in Derry, in Bellaghy and in Newry. John Hume was an important figure in bringing the two sides together in Derry. Unlike in Portadown and in south Belfast, where the local MPs were unwilling to address the concerns and interest of all their constituents, the Derry MP was not personally involved in parading or protesting, and was more concerned to encourage dialogue than stand on principle.

But perhaps more significantly was the decision of councillors in Newry to convene a meeting in an attempt to begin dialogue between the residents group and the Blackmen. Certain politicians have started to play a more constructive role within their communities.

The meetings in Derry also required a brave change in tactics for the Apprentice Boys in agreeing to face to face talks with the Bogside Residents Group. Similarly in Bellaghy, members of the local Black preceptory held a number of meetings with the members of the residents group in order to reach an accommodation over the parade route for Black Saturday. Both of these moves need to be applauded and it is hoped that the dialogue will continue. It may be that the nature of some local relationships in rural areas provide opportunities for mediation that do not exist in urban disputes.

These small moves towards resolution need to be set against other developments which perhaps point more towards an escalation of the problem. This summer has seen protests or trouble at, or after, parades in many more places than last year: Armagh, north Belfast, Cookstown, Crumlin, Keady, Newry, Newtownbutler, Omagh, Strabane. The legacy is a general increase in tension, mistrust, segregation and in the consumer boycotts of Protestant shops and businesses.

The aim of any review of the culture of parading has to be to confirm a general right to freedom of political expression. Sinn Fein argued long for the right to parade into Belfast city centre, while the decision to allow a nationalist parade into the centre of Castlederg last year seems to have defused protests this year. Nationalists in Lurgan are still demanding equal access to the centre and in response have protested at loyalist parades which they had previously tolerated.

The recent protests at loyalist parades entering the centre of largely nationalist towns seems to counter arguments that the commercial centres, if not residential areas, should be regarded as neutral or shared spaces. Such protests can only increase the fragmentation of the north into Protestant and Catholic zones. One minor casualty of this segregation was the decision of the Hibernians not to parade through Moy in August and instead change the venue to Ballybofey in Donegal.

Parades have always had a wider impact than parade organisers have liked to claim, and very often organisers have less control over events than they believe. The disputes this summer have generated two opposing responses, one route has been to recognise the need for dialogue, the other, the desire for further segregation of the two communities. It may be impossible to sustain both paths for long.

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