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A clash of rights: Parading in Northern Ireland

Updated Tuesday, 17th November 2015

What is the background to the North Belfast parading dispute?

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During ‘Ireland with Simon Reeve’, Simon follows the Pride of Ardoyne band as they parade as part of the 12 July celebrations. However on the return leg of the journey, Simon finds himself in the middle of a riot after the parade is stopped by the police as it approaches a predominantly Catholic area.

What is the background to this controversy and these shocking scenes? Michael Bower from The Open University explains the context of the Ardoyne parading dispute.

William III of England Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Manner of Willem Wissing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons William III ("William of Orange") King of England, Scotland and Ireland, Stadtholder of the Netherlands The Orange Order is a Protestant institution that was formed in 1798 to commemorate the defeat of the Catholic King James II by the Protestant William of Orange in the period 1688 to 1691. English Protestants had objected to James II’s Catholic policies and his support for the French King Louis XIV. They appealed to the Dutch William of Orange, an opponent of Louis, to help them depose James, which he did when he invaded England in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The island of Ireland provided the backdrop for the battle between Williamite and Jacobite forces as James II tried to regain the throne with the help of French and loyal Irish forces. Despite not having a critical outcome in the war (it continued for over a year afterwards), the “Battle of the Boyne” in July 1690 became seen as a prominent victory for William as James II personally fled Ireland on the back of this defeat.

The victory of William over James II at the Boyne Valley, outside the town of Drogheda in the present day Republic of Ireland, is celebrated every year on 12 July by many Northern Irish Protestants. Known simply as the ‘Twelfth’, the day is marked by parades across Northern Ireland by Orange Order Lodges (local branches) and independent flute, pipe and brass bands. A smaller number of parades do occur in the Republic of Ireland, across the UK and in countries which have a large Ulster Protestant diaspora such as Canada and New Zealand. A number of Orange Lodges also exist in Africa, where the formation of Orange Lodges was likely influenced by Ulster Protestant missionaries or stationed soldiers. 

The Orange Order is both a strongly religious and British patriotic organisation. As well as celebrating the Protestant faith it is unashamedly unionist, being fully committed to the continuation of Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. The “Twelfth” is therefore considered a celebration of both Protestantism and Britishness.

Anti Orange Order Sign in Rasharkin Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: "Anti Orange Order sign in Rasharkin" by DColt - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons. Anti Orange Order sign in Rasharkin The prominent displays of Protestantism and Britishness displayed on the “Twelfth” and across the “marching season” throughout the summer has, at times, led to conflict with some who identify themselves as Catholic and Irish. Some Orange Order parades have traditionally passed through areas which would be considered to have a majority Nationalist population. At times residents groups in these areas have objected to the parades on the basis that the Orange Order is a sectarian organisation and that the parades cause significant disruption to local residents. Some nationalists argue that the Orange Order is not simply a Protestant organisation, but an anti-Catholic one, citing one criterion for membership of the Order as being:

“He should strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome and other Non-Reformed faiths, and scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwise) any act or ceremony of Roman Catholic or other non-Reformed Worship”

Up until 1998, the Northern Irish police force (then known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC) played an adjudication role in whether or not a parade was allowed to walk through an area. This put the RUC directly in the firing line from the side who perceived themselves to be the most aggrieved.

In order to provide independent mediation and adjudication on parading in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Parades Commission was formed in 1998. Anyone intending to organise a public procession (not just applicable to Orange Order parades), or a related protest meeting, must notify the Parades Commission and abide by the resulting determination. Violation of a Parades Commission determination is considered an offence and is the responsibility of the police to enforce. 

The Ardoyne interface and the Ligoniel Orange Lodges

On the “Twelfth” in Belfast, Orange Lodges and the bands that accompany them, parade from their local areas in the morning and feed into the main parade in Belfast City Centre. The Orange Lodges and bands then make their way to “the field” for an outdoor religious service, a picnic and festival activities for them to enjoy with their families. Later in the afternoon, the parade sets out on its homeward journey, with the Orange Lodges and bands filtering back to their local areas.

Ligoniel Map of parade route Creative commons image Icon The Open University - Adapted from ‘Ligoniel Orange Lodge march, Guardian graphic from ‘3,000 police deployed for climax of Northern Ireland's marching season’, Henry McDonald,13 July 2015 under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license One of the most contentious parading routes of the day is in North Belfast and involves the Ligoniel Orange Lodges. North Belfast is a patchwork of what are considered to be clearly defined Protestant and Catholic communities, often divided by so-called “peace walls” which were erected to provide security to residents living on community interfaces. North Belfast is an area which saw some of the worst elements of violence in the period between 1969 and 1998 commonly known as “the Troubles”; accounting for about 20% of those killed in Northern Ireland during this time.

The Ligoniel Orange parade runs from the Ligoniel area in the north of the city, down the Crumlin, Woodvale and Shankill Roads before meeting up with the main parade in Belfast city centre. The parade returns home via the same route. The most contentious part of the route is a 300 yard stretch which passes by the mainly nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast, approaching the junction of the Crumlin and Woodvale Roads. Nationalist residents have complained about feeling penned into the area by the parade and exposed to what they perceive to be an overt display of sectarianism. Some bands and parade supporters have previously displayed paraphernalia related to loyalist paramilitary groups which is considered to be particularly offensive.

Up until 2013, the Parades Commission had allowed the parade to follow its traditional route past Ardoyne on both the outward and return routes, at times with certain conditions imposed such as not being allowed to play music, restricting the number of supporters allowed to follow the parade and enforcing strict timings on when it will take place. However, this often led to serious eruptions of rioting after the return parade, mainly by those associating themselves with the cause of local nationalist residents.

In 2013 the Parades Commission ruled that the parade was allowed to complete its onward journey into Belfast city centre in the morning, but that it would be stopped from completing the return leg towards Ligoniel before it reached the Ardoyne area. This provoked a furious response from the Orange Order, unionist politicians and many who consider themselves to be part of the wider unionist or loyalist community.

The Parades Commission made a similar determination in 2014 and 2015. On both occasions severe rioting by loyalists has occurred at the police blockade on the Woodvale Road. A protest camp has been established at the interface by supporters of the parade since July 2013, who claim they will maintain their presence there until the parade is allowed to “return home”. Regular attempts are made to complete the parade but each time it is prevented from doing so by the police. This standoff has become the focal point for loyalist dissatisfaction with their perception of how the “peace process” has delivered for their community, particularly as the Parades Commission ruling occurred eight months after a decision to reduce the number of days that the Union flag flew over Belfast City Hall.

Aside from the costs of the damage from the public disturbance on “the Twelfth”, a constant police presence is now maintained at the protest camp at a cost of around £330,000 per month. Many police officers have been injured as a result of the violence that has occurred here almost every July over the last decade.

A clash of rights

An orange banner showing the signing of the Ulster Covenant Creative commons image Icon "12 July in Belfast, 2011 (130)" by Ardfern - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons. under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license An orange banner showing the signing of the Ulster Covenant Ultimately the Ardoyne parading issue can be seen as a clash of rights between two very distinct groups within Northern Irish society. On one side, those parading claim that they have a right to freedom of assembly and to cultural expression. On the other side, nationalist residents claim that they have a right to freedom from intimidation and to go about their lives without disruption. Attempts at mediation and dialogue between both sides have so far failed. The situation is further complicated by both sides of the dispute being coalitions of groups which have different agendas. The pro-parade side is made up of a mixture of the Orange Order, Unionist political groups and community-based loyalist groupings. The nationalist side is made up of two residents groups, one perceived to be more closely aligned with Sinn Féin, and one perceived to be more closely aligned to anti-peace process nationalist groups. Unionist politicians have consistently called for the Parades Commission to be disbanded but any attempt to create a mediation and/or arbitration process which commands greater community support has failed.

It is important to note that very few Orange Order parades are deemed to be contentious. Only 6% of parade applications for the 2015 “Twelfth” festivities were considered to be sensitive by the Parades Commission. The return leg for the Ligoniel lodges has been the only Orange Order parade which has witnessed significant violence in recent years, something that was much more common occurrence in the past.

The city of Derry/Londonderry has been held up as a model of good practice for developing local solutions to parading disputes. Local loyal orders (including the Orange Order), and the Londonderry Bands Forum produced the Maiden City Accord in 2014 which has acted as an agreed code of conduct for parading in the area. This, along with productive dialogue between parading organisations, community groups and business groups, has led to a number of previously contentious parades in the city now taking place totally peacefully. What has been achieved in Derry/Londonderry provides a sense of optimism about the potential for local resolutions to difficult parading issues that can lead to satisfactory outcomes for all sides.

The Ardoyne parading dispute is a reminder that despite enjoying relative peace in Northern Ireland for almost two decades, the legacy of Northern Ireland’s divided past still lives on today. While Northern Ireland has changed dramatically during this time and has become much more vibrant and outward looking, issues like this cannot be ignored. In order to build a fully inclusive future for Northern Ireland, accommodation and respect for the traditions and sensitivities of all elements of the community must be achieved.  




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