As Orangemen continue to camp out at Drumcree, insisting they will stay “as long as it takes”, their loyalist supporters have attempted to launch a rebellion against the Good Friday deal
Immediately after the elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly had been completed, the Parades Commission announced that the Orange Order march would not be allowed through the nationalist Garvaghy Road. But Orange Lodge leaders declared that they would not agree to the parade being diverted away from its “traditional route”. They refused to recognise the legitimacy either of the commission or of the ban. Troops erected barricades and dug reinforced ditches to emphasise the state’s determination to uphold the decision to re-route the march.
Two years ago, after a similar stand-off, the British government backed down, eventually permitting the Orangemen to parade in Drumcree. The state judged that nationalist protest could more easily be contained than the loyalist disorder which was already sweeping Northern Ireland. In 1997 too the march was forced through in opposition to the Garvaghy Road residents.
This year however, a retreat by the state is the last thing Blair wants. Having successfully manoeuvred to win considerable consensus around the British-Irish Agreement, and achieve a majority to back it both in the referendum and the assembly elections, he now needs to demonstrate that the agreement means a qualitative break from the past. Whereas the old Six Counties was entirely based on an ideology of protestant supremacy and privilege, a stable settlement, providing for the efficient operation of capital under British/European Union hegemony, can no longer be achieved on that basis.
Orange culture celebrates not the “protestant faith”, as its leaders maintain, but the suppression of the rights of Catholics (it is akin to the Ku Klux Klan). It celebrates the denial of the right to Irish self-determination. Orange privilege has not only been flaunted in protestant residential areas and town centres, but has been used to rub the noses of Catholics in the reality of their own inferior status, as its parades have passed through their estates. Until recently nationalist events, such as commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, have been confined to catholic ghettos or suppressed altogether.
Under the gerrymandered Stormont regime Protestants enjoyed greater access to jobs and promotion, to housing and leisure facilities. The police, judiciary and civil service were almost exclusively protestant. The 40% catholic minority found itself trapped in “a protestant land for a protestant people”. This culture permeated the entire Six Counties structure of government. The first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, once said: “I am an Orangeman first and a politician afterwards.”
In order to defuse the revolutionary situation which lasted almost three decades, British imperialism has gradually dismantled all the most blatant institutionalised forms of Orange supremacy. Now Blair hopes to seal this process at the top through the power-sharing government. Yet 18 out of the 28 Ulster Unionist Party elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly are Orange Order members - including the UUP leader and new first minister, David Trimble.
No wonder unionism has been thrown into crisis. The new Northern Ireland Blair wants to secure is seen by loyalists as a threat to the old protestant identity. Denis Watson, the most senior Orange leader in county Armagh, said: “This seems to be the year they decided to break the Orangemen. But if they think that, they are very mistaken.” Joel Patton, leader of the Spirit of Drumcree faction, declared that to allow the Drumcree march to be re-routed would be “to surrender a piece of the UK to the enemy”.
This was just the situation that Trimble had hoped to avoid. Prior to his confirmation as first minister, he voiced his disapproval of the Drumcree ban: “It is my view that the decision was a mistake and that this mistake is a very serious threat to peace and stability in Northern Ireland.” Having won the UUP leadership on the basis of his reputation as a staunch defender of Orange ‘rights’, Trimble is clearly in a difficult position. The Parades Commission’s desperate decision earlier this week to allow an equally controversial march through Belfast’s Ormeau Road on July 13 failed to buy off the Orangemen.
Even the reaction to last week’s arson attacks on 10 catholic churches was not enough to defuse the Drumcree situation. Whoever carried out the attacks, they played into the hands of Trimble and Blair (perhaps they were the work of the MI5). Condemned by all the political leaders in the Six Counties - even the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley - the fire-bombings appeared to give added weight to warnings of the dangers of confrontation.
Nevertheless, when the march was halted by state forces last Sunday, loyalists began to mobilise across the Six Counties. There was widespread disorder as rioters set up road blocks and hurled petrol bombs at security forces. Dozens of vehicles were hijacked and all public transport was for a time withdrawn from service.
The Independent’s David McKittrick described the extent of the rebellion:
“Even a simple car journey can take on a nightmarish aspect. Those manning the road blocks are not polite men in suits: often they are belligerent teenagers spoiling for a fight. Sometimes they are drunk. At times like these, many of society’s normal rules go by the board, as youths with cudgels become temporary rulers of their districts and their roads” (July 7).
The crisis has exposed the pathetic bankruptcy of two elements of British imperialism. On the one hand, the ultra-reactionary conservative wing, exemplified by The Daily Telegraph, backed the Orangemen’s refusal to talk to the representative of the Garvaghy Road residents, “convicted IRA terrorist” Brendan MacCionnath. The paper called for “a plan to see the march through”. It concluded: “What is certain is that urgent talks between local nationalists, minus Mr MacCionnath, and local Orangemen is the best means, and the right means, of both arranging the march and avoiding bloodshed” (July 4). The Telegraph harks back to the days when the union - and British imperialism’s interests - were considered best defended through protestant privilege.
On the other hand The Independent displayed the kind of imperialist arrogance that only liberals can muster:
“To anyone who does not live in Northern Ireland,” its editorial began, “the annual crisis in Drumcree is baffling. The temptation is to mutter, ‘It’s only a walk down a road, for goodness’ sake’ ...
“The only way to approach this year’s marching season is to go to independent arbitration, which is what the government did. The independent Parades Commission decided that the Orange tribe should not march down the Green tribe’s road. Now the government must stick to that decision, come what may.”
And here is The Independent’s ‘solution’:
“The Orangemen marched down the Garvaghy Road last year ... they must not march there this year. Next year they should march again, and do so on alternate years until the people of Portadown decide they have better things to do on a Sunday” (July 6).
One of the same paper’s regular columnists, a certain Ken Livingstone, did not take such a simple-minded, not to say puerile, view of Drumcree. He correctly pointed out: “Orange parades in nationalist areas are about as welcome to local residents as the British National Party marching through Brixton” (July 1). Cutting their frequency by half would hardly reduce their offensiveness. But, whereas the Telegraph calls on the state to intervene on behalf of the Orangemen, Livingstone takes the opposite stance: “Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam must use whatever force is necessary to restrain the Orange Order, whose real goal is to blow away the peace agreement.”
While not-so-red Ken is right about the objectives of ultra-loyalists like the Orange Order, he performs his usual turn, for which his sort can always be relied on - acting as a left apologist for imperialism. In the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘minority rights’, reformists like Livingstone are forever calling on the ruling class to take on yet more powers, to use yet more force, in order to achieve its aims.
Sinn Féin too is placing all its hopes on its former enemy. Far from mobilising militant republicans to defend the Garvaghy Road residents, SF president Gerry Adams said that the government’s will to enforce the Parades Commission ban was the “acid test”. He went on:
“The nationalist sense of confidence that there can be actual change is now resting to some extent on whether the British state upholds the rights of the people of the Garvaghy Road and faces down the minority who want to march into that area.”
British imperialism’s use for forces like the Orange Order and the loyalist death squads has for the moment almost run its course. It intends to maintain its rule through other means, based on cross-community consensus. But it cannot simply discard those forces as easily as Adams and Livingstone seem to believe. They are not simply imperialist tools; they have their own independent raison d’être. The marginalisation of extreme loyalism will be a long and complicated task - but one which Blair will need to achieve if he is to renew the constitutional monarchy system.
The working class, however, should look neither to imperialism nor to nationalism for progressive solutions. It should look to the building of a democratic alternative in order to secure its own, proletarian, hegemony.