Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Orange parade protesters remain poles apart

The prospect of further Orange marches past Ardoyne makes even a pessimist like Alex Kane worried about the chances of a shared future

Protesters on the  Woodvale Road on Saturday after the  Parades Commission imposed restrictions  on an Orange Order  parade
Protesters on the Woodvale Road on Saturday after the Parades Commission imposed restrictions on an Orange Order parade

Pessimism comes naturally to me. Indeed, I'm a self-confessed happy pessimist: the sort of person who isn't normally surprised by any setback, or mishap, because I've already factored it into my analysis.

So when things go pear-shaped, I tend not to get excited, or agitated; just a shrug of the shoulders and a silent, "Oh, well. It was to be expected."

But I have to admit to being surprised by those who continue with the absurd pretence that a 'shared future' is a real possibility in Northern Ireland any time soon.

Those who could be bothered voting (a figure that has fallen at every Assembly election since 1998) are voting – more than 90% of them – for parties which support increasing polarisation and carve-up at every level of society.

The non-voters are choosing to opt out and just get on with their own lives: yet – and this is particularly significant – there is scant evidence that they are working quietly on their own version of a shared future. They are, instead, doing much the same as they have always done, in their 'own' schools, housing areas and clubs.

The recent DUP/Sinn Fein strategy, Together Building a United Community, fell on deaf ears. Most people (other than those who work in the shared future 'industry') weren't actually interested in the pledges and Pollyanna approach, believing – and rightly so – that it fell into that Executive category known as we-need-to-be-seen-to-be-doing-something.

The very fact that Richard Haass has been dragged over from America to try and sort out a parades/flags/symbols deal that we have been incapable of doing for ourselves tells you everything we need to know. Which is, that we aren't interested in equality, or a shared future.

Actually, let me nuance that slightly. The sort of people who will take part in the Haass process aren't interested in a shared future; if they were, they would be making a much greater effort to understand each other.

The sort of people who oppose Orange parades and the Orangemen who don't want compromise are making no effort to understand each other.

The sort of people who want the Union flag either removed, or restricted, and the sort of people who want it flown on every lamp-post and public building, are making no effort to understand each other.

The sort of MLAs who believe that 'reconciliation' is about preparing for the inevitability of Irish unity and the sort of MLAs who believe that 'reconciliation' is about appealing to pro-Union Catholics are making no effort to understand each other.

Consequently, every negotiation, or 'crisis talks', is predicated on the need to cross an immediate hurdle, rather than resolve the overall problem. Politics has become Newtonian: every action has to be met with an equal and opposite reaction.

Yet, because the action and reaction are invariably negative, the result must always be stalemate, rather than progress. And (although whisper it) because all the participants have accepted that stalemate is the same as progress, they go in looking for stalemate and come out boasting of stalemate. If the Orange Order was given permission to pass by Ardoyne shops, they would be well aware that there would be protests and possibly riots.

When the order isn't given permission to pass by the shops, the local residents (be they ordinary people, or political fronts) will be equally aware that there will be protests and possibly riots.

So, no matter what the Parades Commission does, the result must always end in a stalemate: which means that the problem will reoccur year after year.

Sinn Fein will argue that the stopping of parades, the restricting of flag-flying and either the removal of pro-Union symbols, or the increase of pro-Irish symbols, does not amount to a 'cultural war' against unionism, or Orangeism. They say that it's about parity and equality.

Similarly, the Orange Order will argue that their parades are not triumphalism, rather they are an expression of deeply held beliefs and values.

Others will argue that the republican mindset which opposes Orange parades in 'their' areas has no problem with parades celebrating IRA members and campaigns and a 'war' which resulted in the murder of hundreds of Orange Order members.

The answer to all of this cannot consist of a 'do what you like in your own area, but stay out of ours' solution, because that will merely – and dangerously – turn post-Agreement Northern Ireland into a series of us-and-them areas forever.

In exactly the same way that you cannot build a shared future by the tit-for-tat removal of what we don't like about each other, or by a Balkanisation process, or even by prioritising stalemate above solution, you sure as hell can't build it by the constant repetition of "Come on, it's better than it used to be."

The greatest challenge facing all of us – politicians, voters and non-voters alike – is the failure to provide even a basic framework for a credible shared future. That failure will cripple us and make it impossible to make any progress worth talking of.

Even a pessimist like me is very worried about what could happen if we don't get our collective act together.