A tale of two cities - marching season in Northern Ireland

Here come the boys. Martin McKeown

Given the power of symbols and parades to generate violence in so-called post-conflict Northern Ireland, it is with some anxiety that the region waits on another round of contentious parades this weekend.

First, in the capital Belfast, Irish nationalists march into the city centre to commemorate the anniversary of internment. Then, unionists in the Apprentice Boys organisation partake of their traditional parade in Derry, the region’s second city the name of which is a point of inter-community disagreement. (Nationalists prefer Derry, unionists Londonderry. The official line is an awkward compromise: Derry-Londonderry.)

Both parades represent different narratives for nationalists and unionists concerning the peace process.

For Irish nationalists, the internment commemoration acts as a reminder of their historical position as victims at the hands of Britain. By entering the city centre, nationalists are also demanding their right to a space that was once seen as the exclusive, sacred space of unionism, as nationalist events were banned here until 1993. In doing so, nationalist leaders can point out to their community how far they have travelled in ensuring nationalists are now treated equally via the 1998 peace agreement.

For unionists, the Derry parade exposes a different peace process storyline. While Derry was once unionist controlled, the city has become a nationalist stronghold. Few unionists live in the city centre where the parade takes place. Unionists have accused nationalists of “ethnically cleansing” the city. The Apprentice Boys’ parade symbolises a brief moment when unionists reclaim the city as theirs. That the parade commemorates the 1688 siege of Derry – when Protestants defended against attacking Catholics − conflates history with the present. The parade reminds unionists that, as in the past, they are again under siege.

Finding Peaceful Solutions

The recent violence related to symbols and parades in Northern Ireland requires innovative solutions for durable peacebuilding. The Good Friday Agreement tried to address these disputes by encouraging the idea of “parity of esteem”: the cultural identities of both groups should be awarded equal status. Yet, this logic collapses when groups view the cultural identities of their rivals as inherently harmful. Cultural practices become incendiary devices for leaders seeking to be defenders of their communities.

To surmount the deficiencies of the parity of esteem approach, a range of alternatives have been developed. The Parades Commission is one such approach. The commission’s responsibility is to adjudicate on contentious parades by often placing restrictions on them. This solution is never particularly satisfactory in the zero-sum context of Northern Ireland, since the restriction of any community practice is experienced as a loss for one group and a victory for the other.

The Derry Model

A more durable blueprint has been developed in recent years. In this, the logic is not to proscribe parades. Instead, the idea is to soften their meaning by making identities appear less belligerent and more accommodating for all members of society.

The Apprentice Boys’ parade in Derry is seen as a successful example of this approach. While the parade in the city was once an annual source of conflict, it is now seen as a model of peaceful cross-community cooperation. The so-called “Derry Model” involves civil society from across the city working together to achieve consensus on the parade.

The “Derry Model” also involves compromise on the parade’s content. The task here is to make the event inclusive by focusing on historical re-enactment rather than on the parade as a metaphor for historical unionist ascendency and subsequent decline. By taking the hard-edges off an event which has a powerful emotional salience for both groups, the “Derry Model” has contributed to a peaceful annual parade.

Derry’s current title as UK City of Culture provides another opportunity to refashion the Apprentice Boys. By positioning the parade within the City of Culture’s celebrations, the hope is to create an occasion that would not appear dissimilar to tourist-driven “heritage” events witnessed in any number of European cities.

Problems persist in Belfast

While events in Derry on Saturday are expected to pass peacefully, what of the anti-internment parade in Belfast city centre mentioned at the beginning? The fact that loyalists are proposing to hold a counter-protest heightens the risk of fresh disturbances.

Why, then, is there no such “Derry Model” for this contentious parade and for others in the city? Crucial factors distinguish Derry from Belfast. Nationalists in Derry can afford to be magnanimous to loyalists; nationalists are the comfortable majority in the city and there is little to lose from accepting the parade.

A different and more volatile situation exists in Belfast. The demographic relationship between nationalists and unionists is more equal. Conflicts over parades and symbols are staged by communal leaders to mobilise their constituency in struggles for resources and political leadership.

What is required is innovative thinking to ensure that conflicts over parades and symbols do not weaken the regional political institutions which rely on intercommunal trust.

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