Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

For the sake of peace it’s time marchers left, right?

Under pressure: the north Belfast riots needed earlier intervention from Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you had arrived in Northern Ireland this summer and had never heard about all the weird stuff that happens here.

You don't have a clue about our tortured sectarian past and the long years of conflict, or our slow, imperfect journey towards peace.

At first, you notice banners everywhere proclaiming that this is ‘Our time, Our place': clearly, it's a happy, confident country that can take on the world.

But then you're introduced to something called ‘the loyalist marching season'. You watch hundreds of men in lurid, mock-military uniforms striding in formation down the road, bashing drums, either cheered by supporters, or jeered at by protesters.

Later, you learn that republicans also have their parades and protest marches, with flags, drums and uniforms (less flamboyant, more the sinister all-black look), though they are far fewer in number.

You see that these parades cause deep tension in Northern Ireland and sometimes end in violence, in which scores of police officers get injured.

You see the mess, the chaos and the disruption, as well as the distress of ordinary people caught up in it all — especially the young and the elderly.

You wonder what all this is costing the evidently strapped-for-cash local economy and how much it is damaging the uneasy truce between these two hostile tribes.

So wouldn't you come up with the one obvious solution? Ban them. Ban all parades. Loyalist or republican, it doesn't matter.

Ban them, because they are primitive and provocative and they are dragging us back towards the hellhole we just crawled away from.

Parades are bad news. They are hurting this country. Trying to manage them — a few restrictions here and there — evidently isn't working and might be making things worse. So let's call a halt to all of them and let everyone get on with their lives.

Okay, that's the fantasy over. It's never going to happen. Because it's been this way for hundreds of years and so it will always stay, forever and ever, amen.

People have ‘a right to march’ and, by God, they are going to use it, regardless of the cost, or inconvenience, to the rest of us.

They have the law on their side, don't they? The right to ‘freedom of assembly’ is one of the pillars of democratic society.

Yet, in fact, there is no absolute right to assemble, or parade. Where it has an impact on the rights and freedoms of others, or risks public safety, it can be revoked. But let's face it, who's got the guts — or even the inclination — to do the banning?

Until the belated intervention of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in the north Belfast dispute, political leaders on both sides seemed to be busily engaged in stoking hostilities — not containing them.

It's their traditional route, you see, and old habits are the hardest to break.

But break them we must. That's the value of a radical revisioning, like the fantasy I outlined above. It may never happen, but it makes you stop and think.

Why is it still the most important thing in the new Northern Ireland that a bunch of men in silly uniforms either do, or do not, walk down a road?

There are many ways to express your cultural identity that do not involve parading along the street waving flags and beating drums.

And, while we're at it, let's be very clear: the vast majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland do not participate in, or attend, loyalist marches, in spite of the grandiose claims of the Orange Order. Likewise, the number of Catholics actively engaged in protests, or parades, is tiny.

There is a silent majority born into both communities, who have no interest in re-enacting the foolish, tribal quarrels of a hundred years ago, or more.

We don't wear uniforms, or wave flags, or shout in the street. In that sense, we're invisible. But we do exist. And we want to move on. Together.

So here's a practical suggestion, not a fantasy one: if a religious, or political, organisation wants to have a parade, let it pay the cost of policing it. It would increase the police budget at a stroke and provide a powerful incentive for the organisers to maintain order among their members.

This is our country, too. The right to march comes second to the right to live in peace.

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