Northern Irish See Red at Orange Parades


Look, here comes a parade through the divided streets of Northern Ireland, stepping smartly from the pages of history into tomorrow’s headlines.

Once again, as in every spring for three centuries, it is marching season in a land of enduring ethnic hatred. By autumn, proud Orangemen will have celebrated their Protestant heritage in nearly 3,000 colorful parades with bands and banners through big cities and small villages.

The vast majority of the parades will be peaceful civic and religious events. But a handful will spawn violence because minority Roman Catholics dispute Orange marches across their turf, denouncing them as a sneering, provocative strut of superiority.


This young season, marred already by one riot, is particularly tense because it coincides with the start of campaigning for May 30 elections to choose a Northern Ireland assembly. Britain and Ireland, somewhat forlornly in the face of the Irish Republican Army’s refusal to reinstate a cease-fire, hope the assembly will blossom into all-party peace talks opening June 10.

By then, if history is any measure, more parades will have brought more bloodshed and refreshed antagonisms. Northern Ireland’s marches are at once a symptom of the chasm separating two cheek-by-jowl communities and one of its causes.

Spur to Frustration

“Orange for us is more than a color. It is a way of being,” said George Patton, executive officer of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. “Opposition to the parades leads to a lot of frustration in the Protestant community. It may sound a strange thing to get worked up about, but it shows how deeply rooted they are. We are talking about a people’s culture.”

Feelings run as deep among Catholics, said Gerard Rice, spokesman for a Catholic community action group that has tried to stop parades in the powder-keg Lower Ormeau Road neighborhood of south Belfast since 1992. “Parades unnecessarily increase tensions. . . . We have stopped them once already this year. If they come back, we will oppose them again,” said Rice, who suffered a broken hand in a 1995 parade riot.

At issue in Protestant eyes is the right of people to peacefully assemble on public streets. Catholics proclaim the right of citizens to be allowed to live in peace without incitement from arrogant outsiders parading through.

“To us, the parades are about sectarianism, territorialism and triumphalism,” said Catholic community worker Michael Goodman on Lower Ormeau Road. “Their message to us is simple: Catholics are wrong from the start.”

City Councilman Jim Rodgers, a former spokesman for the Protestants’ Orange institutions, replies: “We are definitely not anti-Catholic or triumphalist. We parade to defend a tradition and to keep alive a heritage that is being eroded.”

Violence Spawned

Catholics march as well, also giving deliberate or unintentional offense. But it is the Orange tide that dominates in the six counties of the British province of Ulster, where Protestants are roughly a 60-40 majority.

Violence after a parade in Londonderry in 1969 ignited three days of rioting that spawned “The Troubles,” 25 years of sectarian violence, murder and bombing now on hold but seemingly as ever elusive of resolution.

Of 2,859 sectarian parades in Northern Ireland last year, ranging from a dozen marchers to more than 1,000 participants, 2,574 were Protestant and 285 Catholic, by police count.

Catholics complain that the number of parades has increased by more than 1,000 in the past decade. Protestants say the number of marches passing through conflict-racked neighborhoods has been slashed dramatically: from 25 to three along Lower Ormeau Road, as one example. Police list about 20 parades with contentious routes.

In Northern Ireland today, said historian Jonathan Bardon, modern parades echo a claim-staking that goes back more than 300 years: “The marchers are still marking out territory. . . . The number of parades has certainly grown. I think it is because the Protestants feel endangered. They need to show the flag, beat the drum.”

On a large table in the headquarters of the Orange Lodge here, two lovingly uniformed and precisely positioned armies of miniature soldiers face off across Ireland’s lovely River Boyne. It was at the Boyne on July 12, 1690, that Protestant William III of England (William of Orange) defeated a Catholic army led by James II, who sought to recover a throne he had lost two years before. In the aftermath of what they call the Glorious Revolution, Orangemen have paraded for centuries, commemorating farmers who marched to the fife and drum as a home guard during the turbulent 17th and 18th centuries.

Nowadays, the annual July 12 parade in Belfast is a civic spectacular that can draw 100,000 celebrants, Northern Ireland’s answer to the biggest Irish parade of them all--St. Patrick’s Day in New York. (Protestant immigrants from Ireland once marched through New York, but that was abandoned not long after an 1871 riot in which 50 Catholic protesters and six police officers died, historians say.)

There are Orange Lodges all over Northern Ireland, but most cannot afford their own bands. So bands are hired per march, with fife and drum, pipe, accordion or brass. Most bands dress for a party, but the members of some--like those of some Catholic bands--shave their heads or wear berets and dark glasses and come to play with a political point of view.

‘Blood and Thunder’

Band contracts forbid provocative music, dress, behavior or consumption of liquor, Patton points out. Nonetheless, what militant Protestants call their “blood and thunder bands” are known among Catholics as “kick-the-pope bands.”

By now, both sides know just how to make the other see red, said David Hanna, chief spokesman for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in the middle. “Loyalists songs like ‘We’ll Guard Old Derry’s Walls’ [which refers to Protestant victory in a 1689 siege] infuriate Catholics, while any sight of the Irish Republic tricolor, or the national anthem, or shouts of ‘Up the IRA!’ drive loyalists crazy,” Hanna said.

Police carefully monitor every parade, including about 600 nonsectarian marches by everybody from the Boy Scouts to civil servants to homemakers with a grievance.

Sometimes police put canvas screens along the parade route to shield marchers and would-be spectators from one another’s heckling.

Sometimes they override demonstrators “to put a march through” on its scheduled route. Sometimes, they stop a march, as they did Easter Monday when Orangemen were blocked from marching down Ormeau Road past Catholic protesters. A 7:30 a.m. march that would have lasted 15 minutes turned into a 14-hour confrontation that ended with an exchange of hurled objects and rubber bullets between Protestants and the overwhelmingly Protestant police.

“It’s easy to say that if you don’t want to be offended by a 7:30 a.m. parade, then stay in bed. But there are deeply and sincerely held views on both sides,” Hanna said. “What we cannot accept is that the police decision be dictated by whoever assembles the largest mob.”

Ormeau Road is particularly incendiary because it is the crucible of urban demographic shifts. The Catholic population of Belfast, 23% when Ireland was divided 75 years ago, is now about 40% and includes areas like Ormeau that were once staunchly Protestant, Bardon said. “Protestants on Ormeau Road feel their community is declining rapidly, as indeed it is. People have moved out and Catholics have replaced them,” he said.

Protestants call themselves loyalist because they want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Nationalists are Catholics who want it to become part of the Republic of Ireland. In the loyalist view, the political tide is running strongly in favor of the nationalists. Since IRA violence began in 1969, loyalists note, Protestants have lost the provincial assembly they controlled to direct British rule.

They have lost jobs to Europe’s toughest affirmative action program, seen Ireland given a say in Northern Ireland affairs and heard the British Cabinet minister who rules the province proclaim that Britain has no strategic or economic interest in Ulster. Belfast police no longer tear down street signs written in Gaelic, Protestants complain.

“We feel that our culture and identity is being crushed while we have Irish culture rammed down our throats,” loyalist leader David Trimble said after a parade standoff last year. Trimble now heads the largest political party in Northern Ireland.

Over the decades, almost all Protestant political, commercial and judicial leaders have belonged to the Orange Order, whose lodges are the backbone of the parades.

A Gulf of Distrust

In a year when Britain and Ireland hoped Protestants and Catholics would find a way to make peace in Northern Ireland, parade passion embodies the gulf between the two communities.

“If we resolve the issues surrounding contentious marches, we’re well on the way to solving the Ulster problem,” said Deputy Police Chief Ronnie Flanagan. He laments intransigence on both sides.

Because of it, in the run-up to elections, analysts fear that a renewal of violence is more likely than any political solution. The prideful leaders of distrustful communities may parade in to the peace table, but it looks as if they’ll march out again still grimly out of step.

Montalbano was recently on assignment in Belfast.