Belfast Telegraph

I believe the Royal Irish march is divisive and sectarian

Mark Thompson

In England there was a self imposed moratorium by the British Army on homecoming parades because of anti-war protests.

In Ireland the British Army is responsible for the use of lethal force, shoot-to-kill, the use of rubber and plastic bullets, collusion, internment and torture — all with official impunity.

In Belfast we do not have to look to Iraq or Afghanistan. We have Ballymurphy, Springhill, and New Lodge massacres among a litany of events that claimed several hundred lives across the city yet there is to be a march in Belfast. This defies all logic, given the last 40 years, including this past decade seeking to move beyond conflict — unless the objective is otherwise.

If we are real about having a shared future with genuine respect for the views of all citizens, then unionists need to reflect upon the real implications of what this march means beyond political point scoring, given the legacy of unresolved hurt. The irony — the clear contradiction and double standard — is that it was the same unionists who sponsored this motion who reacted most when Casement Park was used to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike — an event in the heart of west Belfast that in no way infringed upon unionists, civic space or used ratepayers’ money.

This is not to deny that there exists a section of unionism that is genuine in their views concerning this event. Rather, it is the intention of a significant element that is more about the domination of nationalists, at the heart of which lies a campaign to thwart equality and rights in which extremism is intertwined and indistinguishable from.

A cabal of unionists, the same people who, on a regular basis, ridicule, belittle and undermine our Irish identity, culture and language, now want to parade through our city the British Army that unsuccessfully sought to subjugate us, killing our loved ones in the process. For them the primary objective is not about celebration but rather a guise for the continued attempt to humiliate. This is totally unacceptable.

Unionists need to fully understand the level of hurt and pain inflicted within the nationalist and republican community at the hands of the British Army which resonates deeply if they are to appreciate the import of this event. For the majority of Belfast citizens, and those bereaved by the British Army, the parade is crass and offensive. Is this the message unionism really wants to promote?

For example, would it be acceptable to unionists for former republican prisoners to march through the city centre, never mind receive a civic reception?

This issue goes to the heart of the truth about our past and the role the British Army played as we inclusively seek a way to address the actions of all actors to the conflict. The march is divisive and sectarian and will attract hangers-on who simply want to cheerlead in a triumphalist way. Those shops promoting loyalist paramilitary regalia across Belfast which during early summer were selling the Irish tricolour to be burned at Twelfth bonfires are now selling RIR welcome home union flags.

The relationship in particular between this regiment of the British Army, loyalist paramilitarism, collusion, sectarianism and criminality are well documented, which make this all the more unacceptable for the majority of citizens within Belfast who look on in horror at the antics of unionists in both putting forward this motion and those who supported it.

If it is the intention of those who sponsored the motion to maintain division and prevent change then they may succeed. If it is the will of those who genuinely want to foster better relations and understanding then they can find a better way of marking this event which is not contentious or provocative. The choice is theirs. They can put forward a motion suspending the parade and create a space where we can have positive dialogue about what is acceptable and unacceptable in celebrating such events. And which can contribute towards better understanding, assisting in dealing with our past constructively, and in creating a united city. However, they need to demonstrate leadership.

Last week the RUC George Cross Foundation held a service at St Anne’s Cathedral. This was a dignified and fitting event for all those involved without controversy and one which the overwhelming majority of citizens across the city would have no objection to. Surely this is the type of event those who genuinely want to celebrate the return of the RIR can participate in without provocation and to which others, especially those affected by the actions of the British Army, are not insulted or their views made irrelevant.

Unionists, particularly the Alliance Party, need to reflect and weigh up the overall view and not the failed agendas of sectarian politics at Halla na Cathair.

Tomorrow: Michael Copeland on the why Belfast should welcome the RIR

Mark Thompson is director of Relatives for Justice

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