Inter-unionist competition defines response to march ban

Electoral politics in Northern Ireland plays out not between but within communities

A member of the Orange Order wearing a sash and draped in the union flag marches in Belfast. Figures suggest  the order is a weak and declining organisation. Photograph: Reuters

A member of the Orange Order wearing a sash and draped in the union flag marches in Belfast. Figures suggest the order is a weak and declining organisation. Photograph: Reuters

Thu, Jul 10, 2014, 12:01

On Monday night, a grandiose Orange Order delegation – Grand Master Edward Stevenson, Deputy Grand Master Rev Alistair Smith and Grand Secretary Drew Nelson – visited the “protest camp” at Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast to convey the order’s support for loyalists maintaining a protest begun last year against a refusal by the parades commission to sanction a march by the Ligoniel lodges along a stretch of the Crumlin Road abutting the Catholic Ardoyne area.

There was a widespread expectation at the time that the campers, out of boredom and a sense of futility, would fold their tents and lug their caravan away, if not after a few weeks, then, certainly, once winter’s chill set in. But far from proving a temporary halting site for Orange protest, Twaddell has become something of a settlement.

Unrestrained

Unionist leaders have been unrestrained in their estimation of the significance of the issue symbolised by the rag-tag emplacement on the Ardoyne/Woodvale interface. Last Thursday’s ruling against this year’s Ligoniel march application sparked a walkout by the DUP and Ulster Unionists from talks at Stormont on flags, parades and the past and the cancellation of a scheduled meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council.

In a joint statement, the DUP, Ulster Unionists, Traditional Unionist Voice, the Progressive Unionist Party (linked to the UVF) and the Ulster Political Research Group (linked to the UDA) complained “the commission members place no value on a relationship with unionism”.

First Minister Peter Robinson warned “the (Stormont) institutions have been put under threat by the behaviour of the parades commission and those who threaten the parades commission”. (The reference was to Ardoyne community groups opposed to the Ligoniel march.)

On Tuesday, the Irish News carried a piece speculating on the UK government reaction to a collapse of the Executive. (The Northern Ireland Office responded it did not answer hypothetical questions.)

The notion of an existential crisis for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement over a disagreement about a parade along a few hundred yards of an arterial road will strike many, particularly outside Northern Ireland, as little short of laughable. Just Orangemen and Apprentice Boys crying wolf again.

But sometimes, there really is a wolf. The Group of Five unionist parties was last night set to announce an agreed “graduated response” to the impasse. At the time of writing it is far from clear – possibly to the participants as well to the rest of us – what this might amount to. The nervousness in political circles is not put on.

There is, however, an intriguing contradiction at the heart of all this. The Orange Order, on the published figures, is a weak and declining organisation.

In the mid-1960s, the order boasted around 100,000 members. But this weekend there will be no more than 30,000 ironing their sashes for the annual outing. Every prime minister in the old Stormont parliament was an Orangeman. Only four cabinet ministers in the 50-year history of the parliament were not Orangemen.

Nowadays, membership is of no great importance for advancement within unionism. Neither Peter Robinson nor UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has ever joined.

So how come both mainstream and marginal unionist parties all feel it necessary to offer robust support for the order in a local dispute, even to the extent of risking the collapse of the institutions which provide some of them with power and prestige?

Political allegiance

The shape of the agreement is a factor. The “peace process” didn’t challenge but was rather designed to consolidate and manage the communal basis of political allegiance. Electoral politics in the North plays out not between but within communities. This gives pole position to individuals and parties that can present themselves as more robust than their rivals in representing the interests of their own community vis-à-vis the other.

Nesbitt has to hold on to Robinson, who in turn cannot afford to lose contact with any breakaway group, particularly one led by a man on the road as long as Jim Allister. The Twaddell campers will not succeed in leading a march up the Crumlin Road, but they might lead a hokey-cokey line of loyal orders and unionist parties jigging towards God knows where.

Fortunately, there’s the outline of an alternative on offer. There will be more people out protesting in Belfast today than will march or seek to march on Saturday. A one-day public sector strike against job losses and wage cuts will involve multiples of the Orange Order membership. The action will involve tens of thousands converging to protest on a basis that has nothing at all to do with the community they come from.

Many observers will say, fair enough, but that has nothing to do with the questions raised at Twaddell Avenue. On the contrary, it is the answer.

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