Parades, bonfires, and hope are the themes in the North

Despite the refusal of hardliners on both sides to embrace the peace and new spirit of cooperation in Northern Ireland, there are hopeful signs of change.

The signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 has nearly eliminated the bombings and sectarian killings that took place 20, 30, and 45 years ago.

Though the horrendous and divisive so called “peace walls” still separate and divide communities, Nationalists and Unionists are able to communicate and get along. Even the politicians, when out of the public eye and behind closed doors, are able to laugh and agree with each other.

It is very hard, however, to erase the hurt and sadness of the years past. This month, on July 11 and July 12, we will witness towering bonfires and “in your face “parades taking place all over Northern Ireland celebrating a Protestant army’s victory over a Catholic army 300 years ago. The Unionists call this “preserving our culture”; the Nationalists call it continuous insulting behavior.
How bad was it years ago?

On May 17 1974, Unionist paramilitaries decided to attack the Republic of Ireland, exploding large bombs in Dublin that killed 33 civilians and injured 300 more. The bombings were the deadliest attack of the “Troubles.” Most of the victims were young women, and there was a five-month-old child.

The Nationalist/ Republican paramilitaries also committed killings and bombings, focusing their attacks mostly on the British army and local police forces. It was a desperate time in Irish history. Does the resentment against such acts ever go away?
Such was the anger that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to stop the ten hunger strikers from dying in a prison protest against British rule.

But all of that essentially stopped after the Good Friday agreement was approved on May 22, 1998. On that day 94.3 percent of the voting public in The Republic of Ireland and 71.1 percent of the voting public in Northern Ireland accepted the agreement. It was a great achievement by good- hearted men and women on both sides.

Unfortunately, a few members of Nationalist /Republican paramilitaries, now known as dissidents, have refused moves towards peace, and commited occasional violence. Just as unfortunately, some Unionists continue ro refuse to accept the new diverse society and continue protesting and asserting their ascendancy.

This month, on July 11, towering bonfires, some subsidized by the government as community activities, will be set alight, 50- to 100- foot pyres in the name of the Protestant king’s victory hundreds of years ago. The smoke from these tire-filled towers will be around for many days.

The next day, July 12, is the big day. The Orange Order, a group of approximately 80,000 anti-Catholic men and women, will conduct parades throughout Northern Ireland. These parades are the cause of substantial trouble. They are a source of frequent rioting, severe injury, and expensive policing costs. There are not just three or four of these parades; there are hundreds of them during the summer. Many Catholics I have known simply leave Northern Ireland, taking their families on vacation to avoid any problems.

One Orange Order Parade marches by St Patrick’s church in Belfast. Three years ago, band members stopped to urinate on the church steps as they passed by. Many bands will play and sing famous anti-Catholic songs, insulting the pope with obscene language.

In an effort to control a march in North Belfast, the Parades Commission has prohibited the playing of music in front of Catholic churches, and for this year a band must stop playing 43 meters before and after passing the church. Hardline unionist DUP politicians started screaming. Nigal Dodds, a former Paisley follower who is reputed ready to take over after current First Minister Peter Robinson leaves, screamed the loudest at any restrictions.

The feelings go so deep that a Unionist group has set up a permanent protest site in North Belfast. Manned 24 hours a day by unionist protesters, it has been there for over two years and is referred to in the Belfast newspapers as the “Twaddell Camp.” According to the police it costs hundreds of thousands of British pounds annually to prevent trouble at the site. That is money that could be used to help solve some of Northern Ireland’s budget problems.

How does all this happen when the vast majority on both sides want to simply live their lives in peace?

Is it because no one is able to take on the troublemakers? Is it because one side is waiting for the voters to take action? Is it because the London government does not care to get its hands dirty? It is hard to believe that after all these years, government leadership is still allowing such divisiveness.

Let’s watch and see what happens this year on July 11 and July 12.