Belfast Telegraph

Why it’s time we started marching to the one tune

Parades are now central to a deal over the devolution of policing and justice. Genuine give and take is needed to sort out the issue, says Chris Donnelly

As I'm writing there has not been any white smoke regarding the deal on Policing and Justice, but what has become increasingly clear is that the DUP's insistence that the explosive issue of parading be introduced as a ‘deal breaker' could jeopardise progress at this late stage.

Given what the past has taught us about indulging the pet hobby of unionism at its most extreme, it might be just as well if Sinn Fein pass on a deal at this time, for the good of our whole society.

The murder of the Quinn children in 1998 was the dreadful high water mark of the parades ‘dispute', and the appalling realisation that the street protests and rioting on Drumcree hill had led almost inevitably to such a dreadful act immediately caused otherwise sane people from within the Orange tradition to call a halt to the mayhem and return home. Thereafter, the Drumcree powder quickly went dry, but not before the brink had been reached.

That was more than 11 years ago, and the first of the children born since have already started their lives in post-primary education.

Defenders of the Loyal Orders were quick to go to ground in recent weeks, no doubt afraid of being put on the spot in front of a national British audience and having to articulate the case for ‘religious and civil liberties' for the prospective Islam4UK marchers in Wootton Bassett. That |they were spared having to embarrass themselves by singing that aul' refrain to a less forgiving British audience should not prevent members of the Loyal Orders — nor their DUP champions — from learning a lesson from the episode regarding how they are viewed by their Garvaghy Road neighbours.

The parading dispute is essentially about the desire to express one's identity in what is acknowledged as being in the other community's terrain. It can be looked at as the manifestation of a supremacist desire in the Northern Ireland context, a desperate King Canute-ish rearguard act aimed at reclaiming all parts of Ulster for Britain.

But a more progressive discussion will need to be had — eventually — about how to resolve the parading issue and it must be grounded in a debate about the willingness of both communities to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other tradition, including expressions of that tradition.

That will only work if the discussion and exchange is reciprocal and we don't yet appear to be at that stage as a society. Unionist representatives demanding the Loyal Orders be allowed to march unhindered in nationalist districts should ask — or be asked — how their own community could display its willingness to host a similarly political/cultural expression of the Irish republican/nationalist identity (and, no, ‘permitting' a GAA team to train on a council facility does not count as tolerance, even in Antrim.)

For example, inviting a republican procession from Legoneil to march down to Ardoyne as part of republican commemorations at Easter would transform the debate over parading at the Crumlin Road interface as it would indicate a willingness by unionist communities to do precisely what some in their community have |always asked nationalist communities to do. In an instant, possibly the most dangerous of the current parading disputes would be resolved and, crucially, the dissident republican movements denied an annual recruitment opportunity.

There are, of course, other ways to transform the parading discussion than encouraging reciprocal parading. Currently, one thing that unites all unionist politicians is their loathing for the display of the Irish national flag in Northern Ireland. Whilst nationalist-controlled local government councils continue to operate policies of equality or neutrality when it comes to the display of national flags from civic premises, the refusal of unionist parties to openly advocate the legitimacy of the flying of the Irish national flag in Northern Ireland illustrates an intolerant mindset towards the expression of the political identity of the ‘other' side.

Loyalist protests in Banbridge and Coleraine after Irish flags were erected in predominantly nationalist parts of the majority unionist towns last year were indicative of this petty-mindedness, with the loyalist reaction claiming the life of a man in Coleraine. Such a mentality has to be challenged if unionism is serious about entering a genuine discussion regarding the creation of a society characterised by a mutual desire to accommodate the political and cultural expressions of its neighbours.

Only then will the whole community have the confidence to embrace an open discussion on parades.

Chris Donnelly is a blogger and former Sinn fein council candidate

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