Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Why a question of timing has Ardoyne on edge

Once notorious Drumcree now passes off with barely a murmur. But there is unfinished marching business in north Belfast, says Brian Rowan

11th July 2012 Protest at the Ardoyne shops in north Belfast by Loyalist and Nationalists ahead of today's 12th July Orange Order parade through the area. Loyalist protesters pictured at the scene.

Remember Drumcree in those worst of times; those July days filled with trepidation and tension as parade and protest clashed?

It made headline news, dressed in the imagery of confrontation and complex security manoeuvres involving hundreds of police and soldiers.

At the scene, we watched them being dropped into the fields, lines of them behind shields and carrying wooden riot batons.

And stretched out across those fields were coils of barbed or razor wire - on one side the Orangemen and their supporters, on the other the route leading to the Garvaghy Road.

This was in the period of the mid to late-1990s, that security and battle imagery a contradiction of a developing peace.

And yet now, Drumcree passes with a whisper, as it did last weekend - a few quiet lines of reporting replacing the once-screaming headlines.

Yes, there is still the demand from the Orange Order to be able to march 'in a peaceful manner along any part of Northern Ireland'. But they know it is not that simple; that things have changed forever.

It is 15 years since the last parade stepped onto the Garvaghy Road in Portadown - a path cleared in a security operation in 1997 that was hugely damaging to relations with the Catholic community.

But the parading issue is still out there, part of the unfinished business long after ceasefires and the different political agreements.

The focus in these July days has shifted; no longer on Portadown, but on Ardoyne in north Belfast - a part of the city where the two communities live cheek-by-jowl.

It is another of those spots where parade and protest clash; where a big security operation is needed and the news is reported from a riotous playground.

This year, the Parades Commission has ordered the Orange Order march back by four o'clock, several hours earlier than usual.

And one of the nationalist residents' groups, GARC (Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective), will stage a protest march in the same area.

A local loyalist, speaking anonymously to the Belfast Telegraph, said those decisions are "causing all sorts of consternation". "It's thrown the cat among the pigeons," he said.

Asked would the Orange Order comply with the Parades Commission decision, he said he thought: "It would be impossible to be back at four."

And, then, another cat was thrown among the pigeons, not by the Parades Commission, but by the senior UDA figure Jackie McDonald.

In interviews in recent days, he suggested the Orange Order should consider a "one-way ticket", meaning no marches back from the field, saying this had worked with the recent Balmoral Review. He also described the Twelfth as his "worst day of the year".

It brought stinging criticism from within his own ranks; his comments described by a branch of the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) as "reprehensible, disgraceful and offensive".

And, in that rebuke, we read just how raw and divisive this issue remains.

There is no security answer to it. Yes, there is a security operation, at considerable cost, that in north Belfast and elsewhere will attempt to police the decisions of the Commission.

But that is not a solution. All it does is paper over the cracks.

Nor is there a Parades Commission answer to this. Indeed, there are those saying that the latest decisions have made things worse.

Loyalists are suspicious about the intentions of dissident republicans in north Belfast.

But this problem in Ardoyne pre-dates the emergence of the dissidents.

The Ardoyne republican Martin og Meehan, writing on his blog, sets out the position of GARC: "They have reiterated their strongly held view that those who wish to involve themselves in violence on the day should stay away. GARC do not want any rioting, violence or trouble, as, like sectarian marches, it is not welcome by local residents," he wrote.

Meehan is also a member of Republican Network for Unity, which opposes the Sinn Fein political strategy.

And he, and others, will know the dangers of bringing people in numbers onto the street.

Indeed, a mainstream republican accused GARC of "trying to wind the situation up". "They have their own agenda," he said.

There is talk that they will change the time of their protest to coincide with the Orange Order's return, there will be a loyalist protest and these factors are contributing towards "a more dangerous situation".

So, while Drumcree may well now be quiet, elsewhere there are voices still being raised.

We are told that solutions will only be found in local dialogues and agreements. But the message coming out of Ardoyne speaks of continuing dispute, disagreement and deadlock.

And this is an issue the peace process has not resolved. It has answered big questions - bigger questions - on ceasefires, decommissioning, ending armed campaigns, making agreements on policing and politics, but not parades.

And, in Ardoyne, there is not much time to work things out before marching feet walk into another protest - and another collision on this north Belfast stage.

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