No Room for Complacency in Northern Ireland's Transition to Peace

As another 12th of July passes marking the busiest part of the marching season, the people of Northern Ireland have watched as parts of the country have once again descended into widespread sectarian rioting and attacks against the police. The focal point for trouble, as always, is a small number of contentious routes taken by protestant Orangemen of the loyal orders that pass through areas that have, over the years, become overwhelmingly catholic in their ethnicity. The members of the Orange Orders believe that following the traditional routes of their forbearers is a vital part of maintaining their culture and heritage. The nationalist communities view the parades that enter their areas as a triumphant and gloating invasion that can have no place in a modern and inclusive Northern Ireland.

This is an old debate that has been played out many times over the province’s long and difficult transition from conflict. This year, however, there are two factors that provide a very different slant to the violence. The first factor is that this year marks the first year that there has been serious violence connected to the annual parades in the new era of power sharing in Northern Ireland. The second factor is the extent to which violence and disorder connected to the parades has been organised and directed by dissident republicans who are violently opposed to power sharing. On a previous blog I described the rise of dissident republicans and highlighted the threat they pose to our devolved government and the continued transition of Northern Ireland from violence to peace.

In this instance the strategy that the dissidents are employing provides Sinn Fein, the leading nationalist political party in the power sharing government, with a big headache. On the one hand Sinn Fein must strongly condemn the violence connected to the parades, while on the other they need to be seen to be representing the overwhelming view of their constituents, i.e., that the Orange Order must rethink their stance on parading in contentious areas. This prospect seems highly unlikely as the Orange Order have just today released a statement reiterating their refusal to even discuss these issues with Sinn Fein. They identify the murder of their members by the IRA during the conflict as their motivation and have demanded an apology from Sinn Fein before they could consider opening discussions. 

This revisiting of the kind of language used in the dark days of Northern Ireland by the main players in the parades dispute has not gone unnoticed. On Tuesday the Taoiseach Brian Cowen gave a statement under the banner:

 “We cannot allow old hatreds to fester and renew themselves…”

The Taoiseach then attempted to put the violence experienced on Monday night into a much wider context by calling for an end to sectarianism, of peace walls and of deep communal divisions in parts of the north and the embracing of a shared future for all.

I believe there is plenty of optimism that we can continue to grow towards the shared future that Brian Cowen envisages. It must not be forgotten, however, that for this to be achieved we must prevent what has happened in the past from impairing our ability to sit down and talk out our differences. The issue of finding a shared agreement for dealing with contentious parades is an important one. For if we can find a solution that is acceptable to all, then, July could become our biggest and brightest month of the year and not the darkest.

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