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'Parading Culture', by Neil Narman

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Text: Neil Jarman
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Belfast Telegraph, 10.7.97
Neil Jarman

Holding parades to mark significant anniversaries, to assert political power or simply as a social event, is a long established custom in Ireland. The earliest report of a parade describes a Corpus Christi procession through Dublin in 1498, but it is unlikely that this was the first such event. Parading therefore has a long `tradition' and one that predates the loyal orders by some 300 years.

Although one can trace a common thread from this early parade through to the present, the practice of parading has obviously changed considerably. One consistency has been that the wider culture of parading: the scale and the number of the events, the music and the symbolic displays associated with them, have always been part of the broader political culture of the island.

It is impossible to separate the religious, from the political, the social and the cultural at parades. Most operate at a number of different levels. The Corpus Christi procession formally marked a religious anniversary but it was organised by the City Guilds and therefore also served as a display of their wealth and power. For those watching it was an enjoyable holiday spectacle.

Parades are always complex and dynamic events, and they will mean different things to different people. Although they may appear the same from year to year, in relation to the wider social context they are always changing. The impetus for changes in the nature and style of parades has often been greatest at periods of political tension or transformation as a few examples will illustrate.

The modern era of parading began when the Volunteers established the practice in the north of Ireland in the 1770s. Initially a paramilitary force (another longstanding `tradition'), the Volunteers swiftly turned their attention to supporting demands for reform of the Irish parliament.

Volunteer companies regularly paraded the streets of Ulster in support of their cause and these recurrent displays of strength increased the pressure on Westminster and helped to achieve their political demands. But their parades also became a fashionable pastime, attracting large crowds and admiration for the elaborate uniforms, flags and music.

The parading legacy was taken up by the Orange Order and from 1796 they celebrated the Williamite anniversaries widely, but by the 1820s Catholic Ribbonmen were also organising regular parades on St Patrick's day. With a background of transformation to an industrial economy and O'Connell's campaign for Catholic Emancipation, parades became the focus for local struggles for power, dominance and control of territory.

Violent clashes throughout the 1820s and 1830s regularly left people dead or injured. The police were often unable to maintain order and attempts to ban parades were widely ignored. It was only when parades were banned under the Party Processions Act in 1836 and the policing system completely reformed, that the annual violence and disorder was halted.

Legal parades resumed in 1872. Most events were peaceful and parading became respectable. The major anniversaries were co-opted by politicians trying to mobilise support for, and opposition to, Home Rule, and the gatherings were used to make important political speeches.

Parades increased both in scale and in number from this time, but the most dramatic developments were in the accompanying visual displays. Banners had long been carried on parades but it was only around the turn of the century that the current style was adopted. A profusion of new images appeared as the ideals and heroes of Irish nationalism and British unionism were elaborated and celebrated.

Some trouble did continue, particularly when nationalists tried to claim the right to parade in Lurgan and Portadown, and on a number of occasions police had to remove Apprentice Boys who protested at the annual St Patrick's day parade around the walls of Derry. However these disturbances were less serious than before and more readily dealt with by the authorities. Generally the police and magistrates tried to accommodate the rights of both communities, although this was often in the face of stern opposition.

With partition parades took on a new significance. Orange parades were encouraged: the Twelfth became a national holiday, and the Black, Apprentice Boys and juniors all established new parading days. In contrast nationalist parades were regarded as a threat and a challenge to Stormont and were restricted to predominately Catholic areas, if not formally banned. Since the 1920s the Orange tradition has flourished, while the Green tradition has withered.

These brief examples highlight the way in which parading has been irrevocably entwined with wider political debates and concerns. But parades, and disputes over parades, are never just a response to wider issues, they must always be seen in their own terms, as expressions of local concerns, as ways of asserting local rights and displays of power. History shows us that the culture of parading is deeply embedded in the social life of the north of Ireland, but it also warns that any resolution to the current disputes must address this constant interplay of local concerns and national issues.

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