Two to tango?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Letters, Letters, Volume 5

Sir,—Proinsias Ó Conluain’s article ‘Orange déjà vu?’ (HI 4.4, Winter1996) sadly attributed the ‘déjà vu’ solely to the Orange Order. Infact the ‘déjà vu’ really relates to the whole series of eventsculminating in the tensions and troubles surrounding Orange parades.Sadly his article, which missed out valuable historical facts, waspartial at best and fails to take the wider historical context intoaccount. He also fails to relate the current events to any of the majorparade controversies of the past two centuries. Equally in hisexplanation the old adage ‘it takes two to tango’ does not seem tofigure.
There have been many controversies surrounding Orange parades, somelocal, never reaching the infamy of Drumcree, while others have passedinto the annals of Irish folklore and history. I would draw readers’attention to four such incidents, three where disturbances occurredbecause of objections from local Nationalist and Roman Catholicresidents (augmented, it should be noted, by outsiders), and the fourthwhere MP William Johnston of Ballykilbeg was prosecuted under the PartyProcessions Act (1850). My contention is that rather than beingisolated events of coat trailing bigotry resulting in communal strifeand tension, the controversies surrounding Orange parades are theresponses of both the political communities in Ulster and latelyNorthern Ireland to prevailing terrorism or Nationalist politicaladvancement.
In 1849 an Orange parade going to and returning from LordAnnesley’s estate in Tollymore caused problems while passing along asection of road at Dolly’s Brae. On this occasion the parade wasattacked on the return leg by Ribbonmen and in the ensuing mêléeseveral Roman Catholics were killed (the relationship between the deadand the Ribbonmen is unclear). The previous year saw the Young Irelandmovement attempting armed revolution. The significance to Ulster andCounty Down particularly was the role played by the Banbridge solicitorJohn Mitchel who was a leading Young Irelander and editor of the UnitedIrishman newspaper which was very vocal in its support for therevolutionary cause. Thus tension between the political traditions wasalready heightened long before July.
The next parade controversy to consider is the parade betweenNewtownards and Bangor led by William Johnston in 1867. Again thelarger picture was the emerging Fenian movement carrying out atrocitiesboth in Ireland and in Great Britain. The decision to defy the PartyProcessions Act was based on two assumptions: the Act was unjust; andthe Fenian movement had been parading openly throughout other parts ofIreland. Again the prevailing circumstances show a trend of politicalNationalism gaining prominence and a violent Republican terror campaignbeing waged in the background.
In 1952/3 a parade along the Longstone Road, Annalong became anissue and was banned on two occasions due to pressure from localresidents but was allowed to pass on the third occasion. The paradetook place even though the road was bombed the previous night. Asbefore, the prevailing circumstances show a terror campaign beingwaged, this time by Saor Uladh, and politically Éire had declareditself a republic in 1949 and the Easter Rising commemorations of 1952included the seizing of Pomeroy village by Saor Uladh activists. It isalso worth noting at this time that when Liam Kelly, the reputed leaderof Saor Uladh, was released from prison the Irish cabinet member SeanMcBride was present in Pomeroy to celebrate his release.
Finally it is worth noting the problems experienced in Portadown inJuly 1985/6. Again the traditional marches were the centre of problemsand a route used for over 150 years became a controversial issue. Asbefore there was in the wider community an IRA campaign and politicallythe Anglo-Irish Agreement was being drawn up and implemented.
Machiavelli said: ‘Prudent men are in the habit of saying that hewho wishes to see what is to come should observe what has alreadyhappened…Future things are also easily known from past ones if anation has for a long time kept the same habits’.
This is a selection of what can happen when terrorism occurs andpolitically Nationalism is in the ascendant. By applying this templateto 1995/6 it was obvious that Orange parades would again be the sourceof trouble. From our past it is easy to see that parades are bothissues around which action can be taken and they are convenient becausethey are traditional. The political landscape of 1995/6 saw thepublication of the Framework Document—widely recognised as pro-nationalist—and the resumption of IRA violence. The scene was thusset for communal strife based around Orange parades.
It is interesting to note that in A.T.Q. Stewart’s The NarrowGround (1969) he states that ‘Belfast riots have rarely, if ever, beenbegun by Orangemen marching in regalia. The archetypal situation is foran Orange procession to be attacked by Catholics, so initiatingfull-scale retaliation at a time when the “Orange blood was up”’. Itwould be folly to see these attacks solely as physical; these attackscould be against a traditional parade or the right to live in a certainarea.
Thus the presence or absence of Lambeg drums or ‘Kick the pope’bands becomes irrelevant, as does the playing of ‘party songs’ andso-called provocation. Each side is playing their part as if it wassome form of predetermined play. The rights and wrongs of freedom ofassembly, the right to free movement and the right of protests allbecome irrelevant as the major players fulfil the role history hasdetermined. In the case of Portadown last year the ground had beenpolitically laid for Nationalists to object to a long-establishedtraditional Orange parade. Likewise the outcome was all too predictable.
By viewing the past we can see that the future in Ireland ispredictable because we have for a long time kept the same habits.Surely as historians we should be prudent enough to lift our eyes aboveour own prejudices and be able to analyse these habits with open andimpartial minds without relying on past condemnations as a way ofliving the present.—Yours etc.,

Co. Armagh


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