At the annual Sinn Féin Wolfe Tone Commemoration at Bodenstown on Sunday 21 June Martin McGuinness made a plea to the Orange Order:
"The days of republicans stretching ourselves and our communities to maintain calm in the face of sectarian provocation cannot last forever. It is now time for the issue of contested parades to be dealt with once and for all. That means the Orange Order making its contribution to peace. It means a declaration from the Orange Order that, in future, it will no longer seek to force parades through Catholic areas and risk bringing violence on to our streets."
Predictably, the Orange Order responded in knee-jerk style, saying that McGuinness's comments were "a disappointing attack on the Protestant community. For years, Sinn Fein policy has been to make life as difficult as possible for parade organisers. They have totally failed to understand that parading is an integral part of the Protestant culture."
Unionist politicians weighed in on the Orange Order's side too:
The DUP said that "the comments by Martin McGuinness are an abdication of leadership by Sinn Fein on the parades issue".
The TUV saw "the comments made by Joint First Minister Martin McGuiness in respect of Orange Order Parades as inflammatory, provocative and extremely misguided" and "amount to little more than a cloaked threat against the outcome and safety of parades involving law abiding men, women and children taking part in lawful public processions to and from Christian Worship".
(The UUP officially made no statement.)
While all of this is depressingly predictable, within Northern Ireland at least, on the wider stage it represents a significant and subtle victory for Sinn Féin.
The London Independent newspaper, one of the very few non-Irish papers to carry the story, started their report as follows:
"The Orange Order was today challenged to make a contribution to the peace process by stopping attempts to march through Catholic areas. Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that while the IRA, loyalists, political parties and governments have made significant steps forward over 15 years, the Orange Order has refused to budge."
The immediate impression given is that McGuinness requested to Orange Order to 'contribute to peace' but the Order churlishly 'refused to budge'.
But the icing on the cake for Sinn Féin, and the factor that swung the story strongly in their favour, were the attacks on the Roma people in south Belfast that dominated reporting of Northern Ireland over the weekend. Martin McGuinness came out strongly to condemn the attacks, and was widely reported in both print and broadcast media. His was the 'official' voice of Northern Ireland seen on the BBC's main television news (beamed worldwide on BBC World), and he stood in direct opposition to the racism and thuggery of the attackers.
After several days in the spotlight McGuinness has emerged as a caring anti-racist mature politician. No mention was made of his IRA past, as if that is ancient history.
His appeal to the Orange Order will be seen in that light – a genuine request by a caring mature anti-sectarian politician to an organisation that is 'refusing to budge'. The easy conflation of the position of the Orange Order – a flag-waving group of reactionaries – with that of the south Belfast racists – reportedly linked to another group of flag-waving reactionaries (Combat 18) – has left McGuinness with an easy moral victory.
The Orange Order can snarl and huff about how nobody appreciates their traditions, but the damage has been done and world opinion, in so far as it notices or cares, will have moved another notch or two away from supporting them. The Orange Order failed to understand the media importance of the events in Belfast, and how they were providing Martin McGuinness with a worldwide audience. Instead of responding imaginatively and intelligently, the Orange Order attacked the man who was standing up to racism, and thereby placed themselves in the camp of the racists.