Marching Season in Northern Ireland
By John Corry
My company has to make deliveries one week in advance during July, because many delivery truck drivers will refuse to work in this period. In the past, it was common for their trucks to be stolen and set on fire in the streets as barricades. If the driver was of the wrong religion, the consequences would be more severe.
The reason for this is July is Marching Season, traditionally the most volatile time in Northern Ireland, with July 12 marking the victory of the Protestant Dutch William of Orange over the Catholic supporters of the English King James II in 1690.
William's triumph still catches the imagination of many Ulster Protestants, who commemorate it each year with controversial Orange Marches. Members of the Orange Order, decked in suits, sashes and bowler hats participate in these marches that often pass through Catholic areas, resulting in anything from stones and petrol bombs being thrown to all-out riots.
Explaining Northern Ireland's problems is an impossible task, all too often summed up in glib comments such as, "Simple. It's the fault of the British." Divisions between the Protestant and Catholic traditions are not only along religious lines, but political, cultural and historical lines, all so densely interwoven that it makes the Gordian knot appear easy to untie in comparison.
Certain facts are indisputable. Northern Ireland is joined geographically to the Republic of Ireland, but politically, it is a separate country. Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom. The main religions are Protestant and Catholic. Only a small percentage of either religion is in support of violence, whereas the vast majority maintain a strong desire for peace.
An Irish friend of mine once said to me what I believe is the majority view for the people of the Republic: "Of course I want the North to be returned to the South, but not at the expense of a single life."
Regrettably there have been many lives lost. The shameful atrocities carried out by militant associations on both sides has reached the world's notice on numerous occasions, whether it was the bombing of Omagh or the stoning of small school children in the Ardoyne.
The three main paramilitary groups have been the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA). The IRA is possibly the most infamous of the three.
The genesis of the IRA was during the 1970s civil rights disturbances. It is difficult to imagine now, but less than 30 years ago, the Protestant majority actively and openly discriminated against the Catholic minority to such an extent that the Catholic community had to engage in peaceful demonstrations for equal rights. This resulted in whole-scale rioting with Protestant communities attacking Catholic areas across Northern Ireland.
The IRA stepped into the breach initially as a defender of these areas but the organization quickly became far more aggressive.
In Northern Ireland, the resultant carnage has colloquially become termed as "the troubles." This is a world-class understatement for a dispute that has left 3,200 people dead and caused areas of the North to resemble fortresses.
The activities of the IRA, which include firing homemade mortar shells at 10 Downing Street and London Airport, have in large part forced Britain to base some 20,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland. Police stations are hidden under facades of armored sheeting, and bulletproof vests are standard for ordinary officers.
The situation has improved with an unsteady peace continuing to survive. The current Northern Ireland peace process, which began in 1996, is a further attempt to identify a political solution to 30 years of conflict. The ultimate aim is to extricate violent activism from democratic politics. At its heart is the fundamental principle that this is only possible if those involved in the major paramilitary groups accept a real and complete cease-fire.
In the most recent development, the IRA issued a public apology for the innocent lives claimed by its violence. The statement was issued on the 30th anniversary of "Bloody Friday" when 20 IRA bombs killed nine people and left 130 injured. The apology is part of the peace process, but only a small part. Healing the divisions will take generations as old wounds are easily re-opened.
This year, the marching season was marked by less disturbances than usual. The timing of the IRA's apology for atrocities may have cooled animosities. However, it is certain that the peace will only continue once all men of violence destroy their arms.
Shukan ST: Aug. 9, 2002
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