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Maybe, just maybe, we are on the march to a more civilised future

Time will tell, but this week's peaceful end to the Twelfth could mark a fresh start for parading, writes Henry McDonald

Published 15/07/2016

Orangeman Gerald Solinas hands over a letter of petition to PSNI at Woodvale
Orangeman Gerald Solinas hands over a letter of petition to PSNI at Woodvale
Orangemen marching in Ardoyne with protesters in the background

Thick metal bolts launched by youths firing catapults flew through the air towards the lines of heavily armoured PSNI officers and the less well-protected ranks of the media. One of the lethal steel missiles missed this writer's ear by a centimetre or two before it pinged off the wall behind the grounds of Holy Cross Church, gouging out a piece of masonry onto Woodvale Road.

Everything - from stolen photographers' and camera operators' metal chairs to bricks, bottles, stones and traffic cones - were hurled at the barrier erected to prevent three Orange Order lodges getting anywhere near Ardoyne shops.

That was the scenario almost exactly 12 months ago following the return journey of the north Belfast Orangemen - banned from walking up the Crumlin Road after leaving the main Twelfth demonstration in Belfast.

Although the violence was not on the scale of previous years, the disorder of 2015 was still menacing, dangerous and marred yet another climactic day of the loyalist marching season.

Fast-forward, then, to this summer and last Tuesday's strange events on Woodvale Road around the 8.30pm deadline the Parades Commission had imposed for the Orange protest against the ban.

Only one of the lodges - Ballysillan - marched up to the steel barriers the PSNI had strung across the road to hand in a letter of protest over the ongoing ban on its return up the Crumlin Road.

There was confusion among some of the journalist corps gathered - many of them veterans of this marching season standoff - as to why the two other lodges affected, Ligoneil True Blues and the Earl of Erne, did not march up to the PSNI line and deliver a similar protest letter.

Gerald Solinas, an Orange Order spokesman, explained that the other two lodges were so far behind the Ballysillan brethren on the main parade that they would never have made it up in time before the 8.30pm cut-off point.

One Orange source has suggested the real reason for the absence of the two lodges at the PSNI line was because they had backed an aborted deal with nationalist residents in Ardoyne that would have allowed for a parade up and down the Crumlin Road on July 1 for the Somme commemoration march by the Order.

The source seemed to suggest that the two lodges which did not appear at Woodvale Road were angry with their colleagues over Ballysillan's alleged role in scuppering a deal.

Yet, regardless of the truth or otherwise of that explanation, the key thing about the Twelfth this year was how relatively peaceful it was - even at a sectarian flashpoint such as Ardoyne/Woodvale.

Maybe the Somme was a factor in there being peace on the streets this summer. This writer heard whispers from some loyalists there was a widespread feeling that, given the Somme being a key theme not only on July 1, but also the Twelfth, nothing should be done to sully the commemoration of the sacrifice of that terrible day 100 years ago.

The Orange Order's slogan - 'It's about the battle, not the bottle' - surely not only connected back to a 17th century battle on the River Boyne, but the industrial-scale slaughter near a French river in the early 20th century, too.

At the Somme - and indeed the other battlefields where Irishmen were cut down in their thousands in the Great War - it would have been appropriate that, from the platforms of the Twelfth, Orange Order leaders could have reminded their members and their supporters gathered in fields from Kilkeel to south Belfast's Barnett Demesne about the Irish Catholic sacrifices on the Western Front in 1916. (Here, in passing, is an idea for the very informative and fascinating Orange Order museum at Schomberg House in east Belfast: how about an exhibition there before 1916 is out, or at least prior to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, dedicated to the 16th (Irish) Division's fallen? There already is one in Dublin's Kildare Street; perhaps the Orange Order museum could borrow, or at least model its own on).

Perhaps the absence of street wars overall this summer is a demonstration of strategic thinking by loyalists and reflects a turn in attitudes towards the issue of parades and protests.

It has happened before, as when the Apprentice Boys of Derry baulked at the chance of marching down the lower Ormeau Road in the early-2000s because they wanted to avoid clashes with nationalists angry over the decision to allow them down. The Apprentice Boys, instead, opted to get on to buses for their larger demonstration elsewhere.

This loyal order saw the bigger picture back then and it seems, on the surface at least, that another is now taking a wider view of how demonstrations against banned parades that turned violent are counter-productive to the wider pro-Union cause. Time will tell if Tuesday's peaceful end to the Twelfth marks a new beginning.

On the nationalist side, too, there were signals all around that people want to take the sting out of the parading issue in north Belfast. It was telling that the largest banner republicans held up along the Crumlin Road close to Ardoyne library on the Twelfth morning stated: 'Resolution is still possible' - another sign in the air that another deal is possible between republicans and loyalists over the last major contentious parade.

Of course, one of the axioms of Northern Ireland politics is never to underestimate the capacity of loyalists to shoot themselves in the foot. As RTE investigative reporter Brendan Wright revealed almost two decades ago, in the absence of the IRA's so-called "armed struggle", the republican leadership sought to redirect grassroots' energy towards opposing contentious marches by the loyal orders across Northern Ireland.

And the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys - initially, at least - fell into that well-laid trap on the Ormeau Road, Drumcree in Portadown and the Crumlin Road.

The loyal orders aggravated understandable nationalist grievance about feeling trampled on by loyalist triumphalism every marching season by mounting protests which turned increasingly violent and, in Drumcree, murderous.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland exhaled a collective breath of relief after the Twelfth passed off so peacefully this year. They don't want a return to the days of prolonged parade standoffs, nightly rioting, sectarian murders and communal intimidation.

Maybe, too, the loyalists of north Belfast - including some of those lodges barred from returning up on the Crumlin Road on the Twelfth of July - realise that such violent instability is a gift only to the republican dissidents who seek to destabilise peace and power-sharing in this society.

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