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Orange skirmish highlights the ongoing sectarian fractures in the North of Ireland
6 April 2016
The skirmish on Belfast's Ormeau Road between the police and Orange marchers seems inexplicable to those outside the sectarian society.
To those who live inside the episode is all too explicable, but is never addressed openly. Nevertheless, it is worth digging down into, as the exchanges between the various actors explain much about the current settlement.
Following a scuffle with bandsmen a policeman used a CS spray. The Orange claimed that children had been attacked, later moderated to the claim that CS spray should not have been used in the presence of the junior Orangemen. On this junior Orange parade, as with most of them, the children are outnumbered by adult bandsmen and hangers-on.
Videos of the skirmish show groups of these adults attacking a policeman. The cause of this conflict was the officer first asking the bandsmen to stop pressing against cars that had been pulled to the side of the road by the police as the band approached. He then tried to physically guide them away from the cars and was instantly attacked by the group.
The local Orange leader blamed the police for the violence. They had, he claimed, breached a code of "non-intervention".
"Non-intervention" is at the core of the sectarian intimidation and triumphalism of the Orange Order. In an unconscious imitation of the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, the "poor whites" of unionism unite with the other classes in the unionist alliance and become kings for a day. The Queen's highway belongs to the Queen's men. A standard story of Orange marches is of attacks on pedestrians who try to cross the road in gaps between bands.
This is the logic that unfolded on the Ormeau Road. The bandsmen intimidated drivers because they expected police to clear the road in advance. Police intervention was met with instant attack. Minutes later the unionist First Minister was demanding an enquiry into police behaviour and unionist politicians were queuing up to condemn the police. Not long after loyalist paramilitaries had published a photograph of the PSNI officer involved alongside his name and address. "We know where you live" is particularly significant while loyalist paramilitaries remain armed.
From the police viewpoint not closing the road for a small march and deploying community officers was yet another attempt to apply an official ideology. Orangeism is to be re-branded as culture, part of a rich community fabric. A low-level approach by the police and massive bribery by the state will gradually see it transformed into a tourist friendly Orangefest.
Not for the first time the strategy of house-training Orangeism has failed. The authorities beat a retreat, apologizing for any offence caused. In the same area last year the police denounced the erection of flags as sectarian intimidation and announced that they would remove them this year. Now their position is that they have no legal responsibilities in relation to flags.
There is a broader context. Signing off on the Fresh Start agreement was supposed to reboot the peace process. The DUP would find a new pragmatism under their new leader Arlene Foster. Concessions would calm the Orange order. Bribes to the loyalist paramilitaries would transform them into community groups.
Yet Foster appointed hard-line ministers and played the sectarian card in relation to coming elections – all Protestants must vote DUP to keep the Catholics out.
In pursuit of this strategy of conciliating loyalist paramilitarism police recently advised a small Protestant community being physically threatened to negotiate with a paramilitary leader. Later, alongside the majority governing party, they aided the same paramilitary in an application to obtain millions in community funds. The leader of the community group subject to threats was beaten up in the street to general silence from police and press.
The Ormeau Road skirmish shows that Orangeism is still determined to assert its sectarian privileges and that politicians and paramilitaries stand ready to rush to its support.
The shambles of the 1916 rising centenary non-commemoration was based on complex negotiations to jumble together and emasculate history. Unionists would commemorate 1916 and nationalists would commemorate the Somme. Unfortunately Unionists boycotted the events and the Irish President was forced to withdraw from a Belfast commemoration.
So, given the unwillingness of Unionism to stick to the script of reconciliation what explains the relative stupor of Northern politics?
There is an older mechanism, one that guaranteed stability in the period before the civil rights campaign. That was a willingness by nationalism to concede to unionism - simply bow the knee, turn your face away, demonstrate your loyalty to the state and all will be well. This was summed up by the nationalist party in their opposition to launching a Civil Rights struggle. In the words of their leader, Eddie McAteer; “Half a loaf is better than no bread.” The smug self-satisfaction of the nationalist middle class, with their share of patronage, alongside the grim determination of Irish capital to bury the national question, is what guarantees the settlement.
Is this enough to stabilize the current deal? The working class is excluded from the world of kick-backs and corruption and they face a storm of austerity, welfare cuts and job losses. Organised in their own defence they could kick over the settlement. One thing is certain. Things will not remain as they are. As the already impoverished society faces into austerity either we will see the construction of a socialist opposition or a constantly growing sectarian rivalry and hated in the struggle for ever decreasing resources.
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