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Bigots in Ballymena unmoved by sectarian murder 

JM Thorn

10 June 2006

Hopes that the widespread revulsion at the murder of teenager Michel McIlveen in Ballymena last month would challenge sectarianism in the town have proved to be unfounded.  At the first meeting of the local council since his death, two motions calling for more to be done to combat sectarianism were defeated by unionists.  This is despite the fact that the motions, put forward by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, made no criticism of the role of unionists in whipping up sectarianism.  One called for the setting up of a committee to tackle sectarianism, while the other suggested that the council should express “deep regret and sadness at the sectarian murder of Michael McIlveen” and accept “the call of Bishop [Patrick] Walsh at the funeral [of Michael] for a united voice on justice, equality and rights”.  Even these blandishments are too much for unionists.  They cannot commit themselves to oppose sectarianism even when it is defined in the most general way, and when no demands are made of them. 

To support either of these motions would have been no more than a gesture.  That unionists are not prepared to make such a gesture towards nationalists really shows are far they are from accepting concepts such as “justice, equality and rights”.  The fact is that unionism is wedded to sectarianism.  It is the lifeblood of the Northern state and has to be constantly stoked up to maintain the status quo. The differences between Catholic and Protestant workers are small and the divisions tend to decay over time. Unionists must constantly beat the sectarian drum if they are not to weaken their own position.  Even the mildest gestures must be rejected.  It may appear as mindless bigotry to observers, but there is method in it. 

This is why we have statements like those made by councillor Davy Tweed of the DUP questioning the upbringing of the murdered boy, expressing “disbelief” at the reaction to his murder, and claiming that the main feature of sectarianism in Ballymena was the “ethnic cleansing” of Protestants from the town. 

The necessity of maintaining sectarianism is why loyalists staged a band parade through the town the night before the council meeting, carrying UVF flags and shouting slogans celebrating the death of Michael McIlveen.  However, it is not just the actions of loyalists that maintains sectarianism, it is the state itself.   The most significant thing about the band parade in Ballymena was not the flag waving or chanting, but the statement by the PSNI that its officers witnessed no offences being committed.  This is just one illustration of how the state promotes, accommodates and adapts to sectarianism. 

The developments in Ballymena may come as a disappointment to many people, particularly after the praise heaped on the DUP and Ian Paisley for their reaction to murder of Michael McIlveen.  However, much of this was spin from the press and the British government.  An examination of Ian Paisley’s statements at the time would have shown that he came close to endorsing the murder, deflecting attention away from the loyalist paramilitaries who carried it out and the role the DUP played in stoking up sectarian sentiment in the town.  Ultimately, he blamed the boy’s death on nationalists.  Davy Tweed’s recent comments merely repeated what his leader had said, but without the rhetorical sophistication of the veteran rabble-rouser.

The inherent sectarianism of unionism is obvious.  However, the dynamic of the peace process, which demands that they have to be accommodated, means that it is ignored or perversely interpreted to mean something else.  In this schema, Paisley’s poisonous bile becomes the wisdom of an elder statesman, and demands of the “Loyal Orders” for unfettered sectarian privilege become legitimate concerns.  The latest example of this accommodation of sectarianism was the meeting between the Joint Loyal Orders Working Group and Catholic Archbishop Sean Brady.  This meeting was hailed as historic; the Archbishop claiming that: 

“The desire of the leadership of the loyal orders to come to Armagh... represents their willingness to go beyond the barriers of history. It represents a desire to explain the customs, principles and values of their organisations to leaders in the Catholic community. This is to be greatly welcomed.”

However, the statement from the Loyal Orders delegation showed that this was not the case.  For them the meeting was not about recognising nationalist concerns over parades, but demanding that they drop any opposition or attempt to curtail them.  Their spokesperson said:

“The loyal orders made clear that they believe the Parades Commission has failed and should be replaced by a better system of regulation of all events on the public highway,”

The fact is that no Loyal Order parades are banned in the North, and only a small percentage of them face restrictions.  However, the Loyal Orders do not accept even these minor restrictions.  In the logic of the bigot there must be open acceptance of their sectarian rights – after all, the parades were initially designed to humiliate the Catholics and intimidate any Protestant critics. 

The cause of the Loyal Orders has been backed by unionist politicians who have demanded that a “resolution” of the parades issue be part on any deal to restore devolution.  As nationalist parties are desperately trying to preserve any semblance of the Good Friday Agreement they have no choice but to accede to these demands. The Loyal Orders meeting with the Catholic hierarchy, followed by one with the SDLP, are preparing the way for the return of parades to areas where they had been excluded.  This includes the impending return of the Orange parade to the Springfield road in Belfast, despite the rioting, armed intimidation and the alliance with the UVF that marked last year’s parade.  The appointment of Orangemen to the parades commission by the British means the imminent prospect of an Orange Order parade down the Garvaghy Rd.  The role of the church, the SDLP and Sinn Fein will be to act as persuaders to allow this to happen. 

However, this process is unstable because many nationalists believe that banning the bigots from the Garvaghy Rd is an issue that has been resolved in their favour.  The fact that there has not been a march in ten years is seen a kind of victory. In the absence of any genuine reform and with the constant movement of the Good Friday process to the right, opening up that issue again, and the inherently confrontational nature of such parades, could provoke opposition and create instability.  However, this is where the logic of the peace process, and the need to accommodate unionism, inevitably leads.  The supposed gains of the peace process therefore rest on a very precarious foundation. 


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