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Violence over parades is as much a part of the ‘new’ Northern Ireland as Game of Thrones is – Kevin Hearty

Kevin Hearty, from Warwick Law School, researches transitional justice, with a very specific focus on Northern Ireland. He said:

"Looking at the news footage of yesterday’s (13 July) events in North Belfast one may be forgiven for thinking that they had quantum leaped back in time by about 20 years. The sad reality is they hadn’t – violence over parades is as much a part of the ‘new’ Northern Ireland as Game of Thrones is. Over 20 years after the initial ceasefires the issue of parading still looms large every July and at various other intervals in between. You can set your watch by it. Some years it may be more prevalent and charged than others but every July there are always some acts of violence or ill-will whether sporadic and isolated or co-ordinated and sustained. In the worse cases it can last for weeks.

"The vast majority of parades in the North of Ireland pass off without incident but a small number of contentious ones have the capacity to unleash the havoc seen in North Belfast yesterday. In these cases parading becomes intertwined with wider communal narratives on culture, identity, rights, tradition and, of course, the causes of generations of conflict. Competing discourses on the matter are couched in terms of being a legitimate and traditional expression of culture or conversely as a triumphalist coat trailing exercise grounded in innate sectarianism and intolerance. The most recent contestation over parading at certain ‘flash points’ took root around the same time as the ceasefires began to appear on the political horizon, creating a paradoxical situation whereby overt violence phased out for the most part – some revanchist and spoiler activity and internal feuding and housekeeping aside – but the extension of ‘war by other means’ became discernible via issues like parading. In a society where the political order is rooted in the principles of consociationalism and mandatory power sharing the importance of parading to ethnic tribunes becomes amplified; the issue becomes one where the limits to compromise with the ‘other’ become clear and getting a favourable determination from the Parades Commission can be seen as a ‘win’ for ‘us’ at the expense of ‘them’. ‘Winning’ on the issue of parades can help political elites keep their grassroots support base content and on board. All this occurring, of course, in a wider context where ‘zero sum’ approaches towards the transition are evaluated in terms of what ‘we’ lose and what ‘they’ get and more generally in the face of a missing ‘peace dividend’ for working class communities on both sides of the ethno-nationalist divide in areas such as North Belfast where the issue conflagrates so violently. To complicate matters further there is the fact that huge demographic changes in Belfast means that ‘traditional routes’ are now home to significant numbers of the ‘other’. Thus they are no longer ‘our’ streets for that ‘we’ have a right to parade on.

"The issue of parading acts as a valve through which dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the bigger political picture in the North of Ireland can be violently vented. Those already cynical of the new political order can riot because they perceive their right to cultural expression has been taken off them in order to appease the ‘other’, while conversely when parades are pushed through areas against the wishes of local residents violence ensues on the basis that it is analogous to the days of the ‘Orange state’ when the police force was used to enforce ‘their’ hegemony over ‘us’. That’s not to deny that there’s some who even embrace rioting as a recreational past time and won’t pass up any given opportunity to get their kick.

"In this regard parading is very similar to the ‘dealing with the past’ spectre hanging over the North of Ireland; everyone knows it exists, everyone knows it needs addressing as a matter of urgency but political agreement on the matter remains as elusive as any panacea for ‘dealing with the past’. The issue mirrors disagreement that is grounded in the ‘meta-conflict’ on why there was conflict in the North of Ireland and who is to blame for the death and destruction resultant from it. Unfortunately like ‘dealing with past’ the issue of parading seems like one that will constantly repeat itself until an overarching and inclusive approach to solving the issue at its most base level – and that includes those inclined to express their feelings on the matter through the violence seen yesterday and indeed on previous occasions - is adopted and ‘meta-conflict’ politics set aside."


Lee Page

Communications Manager, University of Warwick

Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255

Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221