This weekend saw a number of parades take place as Northern Ireland's ever-contentious marching season begins to draw to a close. It was particularly unfortunate that so many parades should coincide on the same weekend.
Friday night saw serious trouble flare in central Belfast as a demonstration was staged against a republican parade to mark the anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. The BBC reported that fifty-six PSNI officers were injured in the trouble, with only eight arrests made. Taking place a matter of hours before a peaceful Apprentice Boys parade in Derry, the incident was particularly disappointing but in many ways entirely predictable. While the Apprentice Boys marched in Derry, the Tyrone Volunteers Day demonstration took place in Castlederg, also peacefully.
Parades have long been a source of trouble in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in 1969, the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry was so provocative that it actually necessitated the deployment of the army to the streets of Northern Ireland after the Royal Ulster Constabulary lost control of the situation, first in Derry, then across Northern Ireland as sympathy rioting took place.
The July marches have typically celebrated victories of the Williamite forces over the Jacobites during the Williamite Wars - notably the Siege of Derry of 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne of 1690. While it is true to argue that both Williamite and Jacobite forces contained Protestant and Catholic, and that Pope Alexander VIII was an ally of William despite their religious differences (the Papal States were part of a Grand Alliance in opposition to Louis XIV of France, an ally of King James), the commemorations of the battles have taken on the image of being about the victory of Protestants over Catholics. The deposal of King James was largely a product of his siring a Catholic heir (in the form of his son James) and the Protestant elites in England inviting William, married to James's Protestant daughter Mary, to England to assume the throne.
What is often lost in summarising the Northern Ireland conflict as being a battle of religions is that the origins of the conflict had little to do with religion. The real conflict came from anti-Catholic discrimination, itself perhaps partially based in religious disagreements but predominantly about the perception that Catholics did not want to be part of Northern Ireland and therefore could not "be trusted". Had Catholics been included in Northern Irish society - given access to jobs, housing and all other opportunities - one has to wonder if the recent conflict would ever have emerged. It seems a certainty that it would not have evolved in the way that it had.
With the onset of the Provisional IRA campaign, so came about the "Troubles" and the three-and-a-half-thousand (plus) deaths that it brought to Northern Ireland. With the threat of IRA violence, the summer marching season became ever more about triumphalism and aggression. A crucial problem with the Orange Order (among other organisations that march over the Northern Irish summer) marches was that they so often took parades through Catholic areas. This was particularly problematic in North and West Belfast, where the complicated sectarian geography that already existed was exacerbated by mass population shifts that often left Orange Lodges on the fringes of areas now populated by displaced Catholics. One such example is Whiterock Orange Lodge. Other protests have taken place at locations where newly built houses now occupy the route of a march, such as the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
A notable flashpoint throughout the troubles was the Ardoyne shopfronts, where trouble has continued to flare long after the Provisional IRA ceasefires. Another was the Garvaghy Road. Neither march nor the protest were made any more acceptable by the presence of paramilitaries - the recent dissident republican presence at Ardoyne and the loyalist feuds that spilled into the Garvaghy Road protest during the mid-1990s.
The republican march in Castlederg was problematic for different reasons. Anti-internment marches stretch back to August 1971 and the spirit of the protests is commemorated every year. Bloody Sunday was the product of an anti-internment march met with deadly (unnecessarily so) force on the part of the Parachute Regiment. The Castlederg march was organised to commemorate IRA volunteers: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness claimed that it was "an act of remembrance". West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty, named under parliamentary privilege as an IRA member by David Burnside in 2002 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmhansrd/vo020326/debtext/20326-08.htm) asked why loyalist parades were acceptable while republican parades were not.
Such "whataboutery" is the essence of the modern parade in Northern Ireland - if one side is allowed to hold a contentious parade, the other side feels justified in organising their own. Dressing up an IRA commemoration as a remembrance parade does not hide the fact that it is an IRA parade, commemorating an organisation that killed innocent civilians. Equally, while the Orange Order has attempted to become more inclusive in recent years, it has not shed itself of the hangers on who frequently bring trouble and even violence to their parades.
The idea of banning all contentious parades was recently suggested by Police Federation head Terry Spence, but he suggested a six month ban which would not take in next summer, the height of marching season. When marches were banned in the late 1960s, the then-government of Northern Ireland did not have the will to ban Orange Order parades, although the standoffs at Garvaghy Road in the early 2000s marked a serious attempt to prevent the Orangemen from simply marching wherever they wanted.
The key issue has to be whether or not the banning of Orange marches would bring about violence to the same extent as the removal of the United Kingdom flag from Belfast City Hall late last year. The decision must not be hastily made.