Gareth Davies

Just days before Christmas, a new agreement was reached within Northern Ireland which sought to address a number of longstanding issues. Embedded within the agenda for the talks were discussions concerning the legacy of ethnic conflict in the country, more commonly referred to as "the troubles." On the 23rd December the deadline for a final agreement came and passed, and there was still no word from Stormont, where the talks were being held. Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had assured that “one way or another” the talks had to end on that day, and they did, five hours after the imposed deadline. 

The agenda at Stormont included the important question of how to deal with the practice of parading within Northern Ireland. Reports arising from Stormont indicated that no agreement had been reached on the incendiary practices of parading, and flag flying in the country. Instead, these issues were to be brushed under the carpet until a later date.

The length of the talks, and the difficulties in reaching a consensus are hardly surprising given the multiple ethnic, religious and political stakeholders involved, and the gravity of decisions in light of Northern Ireland’s turbulent past, as well as its precarious present. However, it is clear that the outcome of the talks at Stormont demonstrate the continuing difficulty faced in practically dealing with contentious issues which pose a risk to the peace process.

Parading in Northern Ireland is a practice in which Unionist or Republican groups parade through public spaces, most often to commemorate historical occasions. Most infamous amongst these parades is the annual Orange Order march to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne, in which Unionists mark the victory of the protestant William III over the catholic James II. The continuing practice of parading is seen by some as a legacy of the troubles which has not yet been resolved by the formal peace process.

Parading has historically been a practice which consolidates, and enforces contested national identities along lines of religion, political affiliation, and ethnicity. One of the many reasons that the practice of parading is such an issue in Northern Ireland is due to the geo-spatial determinants of identity in the country. Belfast, as an example, is separated by ‘peace lines’, and by murals which classify and categorise spaces as Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Unionist. Similarly natural, artificial, spoken and unspoken territorial markers exist across cities in the North where there are separate Catholic and Protestant enclaves. Whilst territorial markers like walls, rivers, and murals are inert markers of identity, the parades bring expressions of ethnic, religious, and political identity into an active realm where the mobile arrangement of bodies acts as an expression of identity. In Northern Ireland the practice of parading occupies the juncture of history, ethnicity and territory. 

Parades in Northern Ireland are not just an expression of historical, political, and ethnic identity, but of territorial identity, and claims over land which have characterised the protracted conflict. The practice of penetrating another’s territory and community has been one of the major threats to peace in contemporary Northern Ireland. The march of the Orange Order has been heavily criticised for making its way through Catholic republican areas such as Ardoyne in Belfast and Drumcree in Portadown. Almost every year these areas experience upsurges of sectarian violence as a result of the parades. In 2006 the protestant Orange Order even decided to march in Dublin, the Republican capital of Ireland, resulting in mass rioting. Such parade routes, and staunchly nationalistic agenda of the parades, are seen by many as being deliberately provocative, threatening, and incendiary.

Instead of dealing with the issue of parading and flag flying, the agreement reached by parties at Stormont proposes to deal with the legacy of the conflict by creating an oral history archive, and a transitional justice scheme which will investigate deaths related to the troubles. In addition, an independent commission will be set up which allows victims to obtain information regarding the deaths of family and friends. The decision by ministers to go ahead with a program of archiving and history building would suggest that the troubles are firmly rooted in the past. Far from it. Whilst the parades continue in their current form, ethnic tensions are at risk of transforming into conflict, and the troubles are at increased risk of re-surfacing. 

History-building, and transitional justice schemes cannot feasibly begin in Northern Ireland until the practice of parading is appropriately governed and managed. The inability of stakeholders to agree on contested matters of the present shows clear evidence of the continuing ethno-political divisions within Stormont.

Previous attempts to manage and govern the practice of parading have fallen short of their goals. The Parades Commission, a body set up in 1998 to mitigate risks of sectarian violence resulting from parades has failed to gain legitimacy amongst a number of groups, necessitating a hard stance from the government. If nothing else, this proves the importance of an authoritative response from the government. Until the issue of parading is appropriately addressed the North is destined to experience further spates of sectarian violence which threaten the very bedrock of the peace agreement.

Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. He graduated from the University of York with a BA in English and Related Literature. He is currently studying towards an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin. He has experience in writing about representations of conflict in film and literature, and his research focuses on genocide theory and military technology. Twitter @garethaledavies