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Mairia Cahill: The change from being a protester to a spectator of marches is a step in right direction



The Royal Black Institution on the march last year

The Royal Black Institution on the march last year

The Royal Black Institution on the march last year

Yesterday, when news broke of my intention to accept an invite from a member of a lodge of the Royal Black Institution to watch their Last Saturday celebrations today, someone sent me a quote from Gandhi.

"If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change... we need not wait to see what others do."

It resonated with me because, let's face it, going from being a former protester against contentious parades 20 years ago to taking your daughter to watch one is a bit of a step.

I'm confident it's one in the right direction.

When I took up my position as an SDLP councillor I said I wanted to make a conscious effort to reach out to people of all traditions and none, and it is in the spirit of this that I am happy to be travelling to Co Tyrone to an event today that is an important one in the parading calendar.

I am grateful for the invitation and look forward to deepening my understanding of why that is so.

The institution was formed in 1797 and is firmly rooted in our history. One year later the United Irishmen were staging a rebellion against British rule in Ireland.

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That I only learned one section of history from that period is a matter of regret, largely down to ignorance of not feeling it was relevant at the time.

As a young person growing up in republican west Belfast, the Orange Order was a mystery to me and I felt excluded from that part of our history by virtue of the fact that it was seen as a cold house for Catholics.

My position now, thankfully, is much more nuanced, and I prefer to see people as people rather than a label and learn about why they believe in the things they do.

There isn't a person in Northern Ireland who doesn't have a diverse family background. If we go back one or two generations, there are all sorts of people from a range of classes and traditions.

My friend Joe from Ballymurphy messaged me on Thursday to tell me his great-grandfather was a member of the Royal Black Institution.

My own background is no different.

Although the IRA lineage is well-known at this stage, my great-grandfather was a member of both the Irish and British Armies.

His brother was a Garda, and I have traced other relatives back to the 1600s in Yorkshire.

My paternal grandmother was a Presbyterian before she was adopted and christened a Catholic, and my maternal great-great-grandmother came from a prominent north Belfast Presbyterian family.

Her brother was Clyde Kirkwood-Weldon, a decorated Royal Irish Rifles officer and also a freemason, while my mother's father took part in his own marches as a brother in the Irish National Foresters.

All of this is important because it illustrates that some of us obtain our belief system by virtue of where or to whom we are born, and others try to come outside of that every once in a while and actively seek to embrace diversity.

My friend who extended the invitation has been a unionist all his life. That he has friends from all walks of life doesn't make him any less one, and nor does his religious or political outlook retreat because he endeavours to learn about others, any more than mine does when doing the same.

The fact that he hasn't a sectarian bone in his body stands him in good stead.

I wish there were more like him.

I am aware that there are some people who won't be happy - there always are. But thankfully, they are in the minority. If we are to move forward in society here we have to be able to respect each other's traditions and make an effort to both reach out and reciprocate.

The Stormont impasse has, sadly, exacerbated old fault lines and divisions.

Therefore, it is imperative that those of us committed to making politics work for all citizens take every opportunity to enrich our understanding of each other.

Mairia Cahill is an SDLP member of Lisburn and Castlereagh Council and a former Irish senator

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