“The Orange Order, of course, has every right to stage its march. But for the sake of order, and our nation's image before the world, it should desist.”
These are not my words, nor are they a reference to the controversial Twelfth parade past Ardoyne shops. They were penned by a leader writer at Scotland’s Sunday Herald, about a march due to take place in Edinburgh shortly before September’s independence referendum.
Still, the advice might be even more applicable to their brethren in North Belfast.
The clock-watchers have been chipping in to the debate, estimating that Saturday’s banned homeward leg by the Ligoniel lodges would take only six minutes to complete. No big deal, they say. Why all the fuss?
If the march is, as they would have it, no big deal, why withdraw from a talks initiative over it? Why draw up a protest campaign against it? Why unite with political opponents over it? Why make common cause with parties linked to paramilitary groups over it? Why heighten tension and spread fear over it?
No big deal? Actions – or more accurately reactions – speak louder than words.
Unionist politicians have struck discordant notes in the days since their “graduated response” to the Parades Commission’s determination was announced. Arlene Foster told yesterday’s Good Morning Ulster programme that she was “very clear” what the graduated response was. Just over an hour later, her party colleague Gregory Campbell told Stephen Nolan that they didn’t know what was going to happen: “...We don’t know how these things will play out.” For the first time in my recollection, the right hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.
I suspect things may play out rather badly.
In its determination last week, the Parades Commission seemed to suggest that the reaction to last year’s ruling – “such as the call by some within the Orange Order to protest against the July 2013 determination, a protest which culminated in violence...” – influenced last Thursday’s decision. In terms of next year’s attempt to complete the homeward leg to Ligoniel, the Orange Order and the collective Unionist leadership may already have shot themselves in the foot.
While politicians have been delivering mixed messages about the sinister-sounding “graduated response”, they’re not nearly as confused as the so-called rationale underpinning this latest campaign.
Nowadays, Unionist ‘culture’ is expressed overwhelmingly through flags, parades and bonfires. We’re asked to believe that this culture is under threat but evidence suggests otherwise. Only last week, a study by Queen’s University reported that the number of parades here had more than doubled in the eight years up until 2013. The number of Union, Ulster, loyalist paramilitary and even Ku Klux Klan flags flying here would keep a small army of seamstresses busy round the clock. And bonfire towers climb so high into the air that you can barely make out whose image is being burned. The collaboration of parties, four of whom were cutting lumps out of one another only a couple of months ago, makes the situation ‘curiouser and curiouser’.
Unionist leaders have spouted some rubbish to justify their “graduated response”. Acknowledging a threat to the institutions, Peter Robinson pointed the finger at the Parades Commission. By the same logic a motorist might blame the Highway Code after being caught speeding.
Most bizarre of all has been the pretence that this is all being done to channel justifiable anger and protect democracy. Normally, at this point, children in the audience cry out, “Look behind you.”
If Unionist leaders do turn around, they’ll see people linked to groups which brought terror to communities like Ardoyne. They make strange bedfellows.
The Ligoniel controversy is not simply about a 6 minute march. It’s about 40 years of history. Or 100 years. How long have you got?
Shrewder Orangemen in Scotland would do their brethren here a big favour if they called them on the ‘QT’ and advised them to desist at Ligoniel – for the sake of order and their nation.