The challenge faced by US peace broker Richard Haass in getting an agreement on parades is clearly substantial. The peaceful march of 6,000-plus Apprentice Boys and 146 marching bands in Derry on Saturday is testimony to the potential of intercommunal dialogue where there is political goodwill. But, while Omagh peaceably marked the 15th anniversary of the bomb that killed 29, in Belfast and Castlederg over the weekend political goodwill was a commodity in very short supply.
Sixty four members of the Police Service were injured in the Belfast disturbances sparked by loyalists on Friday attacking police protecting a march commemorating internment. “Rioting by loyalists in Belfast prevented an obnoxious dissident republican march making its way through the city centre, but the totally unacceptable and unjustifiable scenes of violence ... damaged the pro-Union cause,” the Belfast News Letter opined with an ambivalence suggesting the half-hearted condemnation typical of many unionist politicians. Above all, of a refusal to acknowledge the difficult, necessary work of the Parades Commission.
DUP Housing Minister Nelson McCausland bluntly blamed republicans for the violence: “The march was designed to provoke a violent loyalist reaction and it succeeded.” Perhaps. But it is ironic to hear unionists who pooh pooh such talk of provocation when it comes to condemnations of their marches on the nationalist Ardoyne Road using similar arguments.
The same can be said for Sinn Féin’s unwillingness to acknowledge its own provocations. It’s not good enough simply to say that those objecting to their commemoration of IRA volunteers in Castlederg on Sunday are insufficiently committed to the peace process. The Parades Commission can’t ban everything offensive – to do so would represent a dangerous erosion of free speech. But that does not mean that all those who have the right to march should exercise it. Those who loudly demand mutual tolerance of our traditions have a particular responsibility to show restraint and lead by example.
Sinn Féin should have cancelled Castlederg, or taken the event indoors. The town was bombed dozens of times by the IRA. Many residents died at its hands. Feelings are still raw, and its decision to defy the Parades Commission by displaying paramilitary trappings was particularly outrageous.
When President Obama visited the North in June *, his speech was seen as reflecting a perception, shared in Dublin and London, that the North’s ruling parties had become complacent about peace, that, immersed in the routine of administration in the Executive, they were taking their eye off the big picture. Above all, instead of leading their communities towards a shared future, they were retreating into them to secure political turfs. The North is now paying for that failure of leadership.
* This article was amended on Tuesday, August 13th, 2013 to correct a factual error.