Tuesday 14 July 2009

Marching madness – what does it signify?

The news reports provide a steady drip-feed of hatred – arson attacks, intimidation, riots, flag-flying, flag-stealing, poster-burning, spitting, shouting, and on, and on, and on …

One side claims it is 'celebrating its culture', even though its 'culture' is simply dressed-up sectarian bigotry; the other side vents its anger through squalid attacks on orange halls and the police. And, as ever, the real victims are the silent minority/majority who do nothing. The world looks on, perplexed to see that the 'war' that they were told was over, is still raging on the streets.

Despite the half-generation that has passed since the cease-fires, despite the 11 years that have passed since the Good Friday Agreement, the level of visible hatred seems to be as high as ever – in some respects even higher. Men who were boys in 1994 still hate Catholics enough to spit at them, and boys barely born in 1994 still hate the police and the marching Orangemen enough to try to hurt them.

Within 15 years of the end of the Second World War France and Germany had pooled their iron and steel industries and had already set up the European Economic Community. It took barely 20 years from the end of the Vietnam War for Vietnam to re-establish diplomatic relations with the USA. Most countries coming out of conflict heal their wounds and find a modus vivendi within a decade or so.

So why has Northern Ireland so clearly failed to make real peace? And what is the significance of its failure?

The answer to the first question is superficially easy. There is no peace because there is no wish for peace. The hatred both sides feel for the other is still as strong as ever. But why is this? Why do people who share a small space, who speak a common language, and who have all had the benefit of a reasonable education persist in seeing the 'others' as objects? The mystery of the Northern Irish conflict lies in its complete pointlessness – even a comprehensive victory for one side of the other would change almost nothing for either victors or vanquished. And yet the hatred is such that men can come together to deliberately beat a man to death simply because he is nominally a member of a different religion! The very act of doing so proves that the attackers are men of no religion, and that therefore any justifications based upon 'religious freedoms' (or whatever) are false. The conflict is not about land ownership, or even (any more) housing or jobs. It is a conflict about hatred, pure and simple. Anyone who doubts that should spend a few minutes on Bebo, or look at the pictures of the Eleventh Night bonfires.

If half a generation of mostly-peace has not dulled the hatreds, it is likely that a full generation may not either. And after that generation, perhaps another one.

But in a generation Northern Ireland will be a demographically different place. There will be a Catholic majority in the population as a whole, and the electorate will be very evenly divided. Amongst younger people, and in the west of Northern Ireland, the Catholic majority will be unmissable.

The continuation of the hatreds of yesterday and today into the next generation will ensure that political conflict continues. Politics will continue to be dominated by the divisions between 'us' and 'them' – perhaps becoming even more tense as the nationalist share continues to rise, and as some borderline areas tip into the nationalist camp.

As long as the primitive hatreds continue, the attempts by some unionists to attract Catholics to their cause will fail. There is a basic contradiction in the strategy of trying to recruit Catholics, and retaining membership and support for viscerally anti-Catholic organisations like the Orange Order. The only logical strategy for unionism is to ditch all of its sectarian baggage and to become a liberal economic and political movement – but there is no evidence that it has started to do that.

Every year that passes represents another small shift in the demographic balance. Every inflamed marching season represents another wasted year for unionism, and another year closer to its defeat. There is no equivalent pressure on nationalism, simply because the demographic shift is bringing it a windfall victory.

No intelligent unionist could be other than appalled at the damage that Orangism is doing to their cause. No intelligent unionist could actively participate in contentious marches, or approve of the primeval bonfires, or the lamp-post flags. And yet, this year again, not one single unionist voice has been raised in opposition to the tribal antics of the Orangemen and their supporters. Silence in this context denotes either consent or fear – but neither will do the unionist cause any good. Perhaps future generations will look back in wonderment at the self-destructive stupidity of unionism. Having created the monster of Orangism to provide the bulwark of its strength, unionism is now incapable of separating itself from its creation, and will be dragged down to certain death by it.


Anonymous said...

As an outside, it seems to me that the hatred is so deep because in one respect the two populations are so similar and speak the same language. Civil wars (if it is that) seem always to be more spiteful than wars between different nations.

It was 'easy' for Germany/France, USA/Vietnam to make up because they recognised 'another'. The difference is obvious - language and geography.

In NI it seems the 'other' is more difficult to accept - the language is the same as is the territory. In one respect it would be surprising if it didn't finish.

In the case of Germany/France; USA/Vietnam one side accepted defeat. No side has accepted defeat in NI.

Is it surprising the Unionist 'retreat' to the Orange order? No. What do you expect them to do. The Orange Order is a badge. If that is gone then the 'badge' is gone and with is the recognition of other traditions. I support Wales against England not because I hate England but because were I to support England then I would write myself and culture out of the history books. Likewise, supporting England against another team (Germany, France, Ireland) would also negate my existence as the line of logic would be 'he's Welsh, he supports England, ergo, Wales and England are interchangable ergo there's no need to recognise any manifestation of a different Welsh culture because the Welsh are by their own definition are English'.

Maybe the question Horseman is what Irish nationality/state can offer to Unionists to start suggesting to them that becoming members of a United Ireland would mean writing themselves out of the history books?


Horseman said...


I understand your point about ensuring a clear separation between small nations and larger neighbours (i.e. Wales and England), but it doesn't explain the level of raw hatred. In fact the tension between small and big usually is benign (Wales/England, Canada/USA, Belgium/France/Netherlands, Austria/Germany, etc).

There is no possibility of unionists being written out of the history books in a UI - they would be around 20% of the population. Even in the south at present the 'Protestant' heritage is far more visible and respected than its 5% of the population warrants. Unionism may well isappear as a political movement, but the Protestant/Orange cultural bits would remain as long as there are people interested, and of course even in a UI they would form local majorities in parts of Anttrim and Down.

To be honest, I don't know ghhat the Irish state could offer unionists more than it already has offered to southern ex-unionists. Southern ex-unionist heritage is preserved, promoted, and accepted. Have you ever looked(for xample) at the posters of 'great Irish writers'? Most of them are southern Prods - Wilde, Beckett, Shaw, Goldsmith, O'Casey;, Yeats, Edgeworth, etc. Ditto in most other arenas. How many Presidents (of Ireland) have been Protestant? Judges, top civil servants, etc? Protestants have been given privileged education and control of part of the health services. The state has always over-funded Trinity College, even when Catholics were discouraged from going there (by their church). Honestly, what more could the southern state have done? And that for a minority of around 5%. Unionists have nothing whatsoever to fear.

Anonymous said...


Thanks. I hear what you're saying and of course have a lot of sympathy for it. The fact is the Southern Protestants seem, to me, to have ceased to exist as a community and what you have is individuals who's 'been bought' (to us a pejorative Uniionist phrase I'm sure) as part of the Irish national project and who are then recognised and celebrated as individuals and as part of the greater national i.e. Irish narrative.

The Ulster Unionists can see this and, it seems, don't want to, or won't allow to be bought as individuals; an ethnic community within the lager civic Irish national identity. So, to make this chrystal clear to show their ethnic/community strength and determination by marching etc.

You are right that 20% of a united Ireland would be Protestant. That's a very significant minority. But it's still a minority. Moreover, it's a minority which has never reconciled to be ruled by the 'Irish' and I can't see it ever doing so, as at it's heart it's affiliation is to another state. So, unless that other state collapses (independent Scotland followed by Wales ... not sure how realistic that is, even though I'm supportive of it) the UU minority will never reconcile to being ruled by Dublin. And that's what everyone knows which is why there is still fighting on the streets.

You of course know all this. So, yes, in the end it's a colonial discussion over a colonial narrative and political force. Only 'defeat' for UU in NI or it's motherland i.e. end of UK would change that.

So, I don't think sweets to entice UU as individuals will change anything. It would have to be creating warmer water for the UU community/ethnic identity. Maybe a continuation of Stormont in some form, education, parades etc.

When Nationalists protest against parades the message it sends to UU is that Irish nationality may accept UU as individuals but will never accept them as a community.

Hell, this is difficult!


Anonymous said...

'There will be a Catholic majority in the population as a whole, and the electorate will be very evenly divided.'

And we've yet to see a single shred of evidence that makes these predictions a guaranteed outcome.

Anonymous said...

'There will be a Catholic majority in the population as a whole, and the electorate will be very evenly divided.'

And we've yet to see a single shred of evidence that makes these predictions a guaranteed outcome.

Anonymous said...

Don't underestimate STUPIDITY as a factor in all of this. When I was young I worked as a maintanence man at a school. There were a group of 'Orangemen' working there. They were the dumbest group of guys I ever met. And the meanest and most easily offended. You could have put these guys in a Monty Python skit about the British empire in the 19th century and they would have fit right in, no acting skills required. It was unreal how they were. Their mentality was hard to believe.

Anonymous said...

The protests where not against the UU. The protests where against the contentious parades that pass through nationalist areas. If they have to be assisted by the RUC the full way why do they even want to march there if it isnt a victory cry of there right to march down the queens highway.

hoboroad said...

Is there a split brewing in the Orange Order? Somebody was handing out leaflets at the Demos this year calling for a return to traditional values. A Reverend Dickinson is said to be the man behind all this. He has also hit out in speeches against modernisers he is on one wing and Drew Nelson is on the other and the Grand Master Salters is stuck in the middle! It must be interesting usually they like to keep this kind of thing behind closed doors but it is now all spilling out!