Lack of progress on the march

Despite a surge in the number of parades and marching bands, loyalists perceive their culture to be under siege from a growing Catholic population and relentless change

Act of loyalty: bonfire on the Shankill Road. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Act of loyalty: bonfire on the Shankill Road. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

John Hume once expressed the hope that someday the Twelfth of July could be enjoyed by both communities as Northern Ireland’s Mardi Gras. While the costumes are more sedate, the Twelfth certainly has colour, pageantry, music and madness.

But we’re a long way off such a carnival because this week, after the Orange parades and celebrations, it will seem that all roads lead to north Belfast and a probable riot.

What north Belfast is facing seems symptomatic of the state of loyalism at the moment. The Rev Dr Gary Mason says there are differences in perception over the annual stand-off near the Ardoyne shops. He believes loyalists view nationalist opposition to the Orange Order lodges and marching bands returning home along the 300 metre stretch that passes the shops on the Crumlin Road as an exercise in “humiliation”, and nationalists see the Orangemen’s demand to have that march as an exercise in “triumphalism”.

How to find a meeting of minds is the great and, as yet, unsolvable challenge.

“Loyalists tell you that republicans are engaging in a cultural war of ‘de-Britification’,” says Mason, a Methodist Minister who, while running the East Belfast Mission, has learned much about the loyalist psyche and its grievances.

It’s a loyalist complaint that is frequently voiced. Still, the notion of Orangemen and loyalists as victims of a widespread republican cultural conspiracy seems odd, considering that Dr Paul Nolan of Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) said earlier this week that loyalist culture has “never been stronger”. He based that assertion on his study which found that the number of parades in Northern Ireland more than doubled between 2005,when there were 2,120 marches, and 2013 when they were 4,637. Two thirds of these were loyalist parades.

Moreover, as Dr Nolan also reported, there are now more marching bands, again most of them loyalist, than ever before with 660 bands currently registered.

That hardly points to a culture under siege. Mason won’t say whether he agrees with the negative loyalist analysis but instead says, “That’s their perception. That’s how they feel and how they feel has to be heard and dealt with.”

“It all goes back to the flag,” he adds.

Prof Peter Shirlow from QUB’s school of law, an expert on loyalism, agrees with Mason that the December 2012 Belfast City Council decision to limit the days the British union flag flies over Belfast City Hall, spooked loyalists. Demographic changes that suggest the majority in Northern Ireland will be from a Catholic background in a generation or so has also been unsettling for the community.

Additionally, while there are senior members of both the UVF and the UDA involved in positive community projects, there are also more sinister figures within these organisations who are bringing their community down through drugs and prostitution, racketeering, intimidation, punishment shootings and beatings, feuding and turf wars.

The old, big engineering jobs that maintained loyalist areas are long gone and the complaint now is of joblessness and serious educational under-achievement. Moreover, as Mason says, middle-class unionists have disengaged from the working-class roots many of them came from, effectively abandoning loyalism.