Belfast Telegraph

How DUP let Sinn Fein get back into its stride

By making parades a trip-wire issue at Hillsborough the DUP has allowed republicans to turn marching to their advantage, writes Henry McDonald

By making the issue of contentious parades a deal-breaker of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, the Democratic Unionists have handed both mainstream and dissident republicanism two potential gift horses.

For the mainstream republicans - aka Sinn Fein - the marching issue could become a vote-winner in an Assembly election if the agreement hammered out 12 days ago breaks down.

Just imagine if the DUP back-benchers, particularly its 14 sceptics (Jim Allister's 'snow men'), became frustrated over moves to change the way parades are adjudicated on.

There is no guarantee that the deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein will last - particularly as the largest unionist party comes under internal pressure over the marching question. Which, if the coalition collapsed, would mean a snap Assembly election - a scenario that appeared to have spooked the DUP into agreeing the Hillsborough deal in the first place.

In the event of a fresh crisis, and possible elections, Sinn Fein would be handed a trump card coloured Orange.

The party could appeal to northern Catholics' tribal dislike of the Orange Order and other loyalist marching bodies.

Sinn Fein would argue that the power-sharing arrangement, which the overwhelming majority of nationalists have supported since Good Friday 1998, was imperilled thanks to the back-room pressure of the loyal orders.

Therefore, to put manners not only on the DUP but also the Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys, nationalists should vote for Sinn Fein in greater numbers than ever before with the result that the republican party emerges as top dog in a new Assembly and Martin McGuinness as First Minister.

The 'Orange Card' would then be played to the benefit of the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

Yet even if we leave aside the outside possibility of the Assembly still collapsing before the General Election, there is that other wing of republicanism to consider when it comes to the issue of parading.

The political allies of the Continuity IRA have made it crystal-clear that they see the parades dispute as an area where they can exploit nationalist grievances and rally some support - particularly among youth in republican working-class areas.

Des Dalton, the new president of Republican Sinn Fein, recently signalled a warning that, if their erstwhile comrades in Sinn Fein compromised with the DUP on a number of contentious marches, then dissidents would fill the vacuum.

"Republican Sinn Fein will not abandon these communities to any squalid deal reached at Stormont or Hillborough Castle," Dalton warned, alluding to the re-focus on the marching issue which the DUP had elevated to a trip-wire issue during the marathon talks.

Up until recently the marching issue had faded from public attention with even the infamous dispute at Drumcree no longer such a toxic issue as it had been at the end of the 1990s when, on at least two occasions, it almost brought Northern Ireland to the brink of disaster.

Back then, of course, the nationalist side of the dispute had the full backing of the mainstream republican movement, with Gerry Adams admitting at one stage in a leaked internal Sinn Fein document, that the party had exploited Catholic anger over parades like the one in Portadown for their own political purposes.

Opposition to contentious marches in areas such as Portadown's Garvaghy Road, Dunloy and the lower Ormeau in Belfast still hasn't gone away, you know. So there is still a reservoir of discontent which any republican organisation could tap into.

Sinn Fein clearly knows this and, as a result, may be less inclined to be flexible in the discussions over parading than the DUP might hope they would be.

Such a position may, in turn, therefore force Sinn Fein into backing the nationalist residents' groups as they dig in against the loyal orders and then, in turn, alienate the DUP to the point of abandoning the deal.

Either way, by highlighting marches as such a key issue, the DUP has created a new 'casus belli' for both sides of republicanism. Dissidents in the CIRA, Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann are already replicating the past, populist strategies of the Provisional IRA.

Like the Provos, the republican dissidents of the 21st century are shooting and beating so-called 'anti-social elements' in working-class communities, offering the victims of crime a form of instant, rough justice in return for support.

In the past year, the three armed republican groupings have shot more than two dozen victims they accused of so-called anti-social behaviour.

The anti-peace process republicans may be cynical, brutal and extreme, but they are not strategically stupid. They will be viewing the marching season this spring and summer as the perfect opportunity to radicalise a new generation of young, working-class nationalists - some of whom have no memory of the Troubles.

They can portray themselves as those who stood steadfast with residents opposed to Orangemen marching through their areas.

They could cause chaos across the north of Ireland this year by targeting loyalist parades.

By choosing parading, the DUP may have inadvertently created the opportunity for the dissidents to exploit the issue to their own advantage.

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