Newton Emerson: Trouble noticeable by its absence in Belfast this summer

Over 2,500 marches have taken place with less bloodshed than at Notting Hill Carnival

A painted lady butterfly near the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Photograph: Cepa Giblin

A painted lady butterfly near the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Photograph: Cepa Giblin

 

The end of this summer in Northern Ireland is notable for something that has not happened. We have had a peaceful marching season – or at least it has “passed off peacefully”, to use the cliche that relegates peace to the absence of rioting.

A recent focus on anti-social behaviour around bonfires reflects how little there has been to report about parades. Normality in the North may still be a subjective concept but, objectively, over 2,500 unionist, loyalist and occasional republican marches have just taken place with less bloodshed than the Notting Hill Carnival.

Last year did witness one brief evening of disturbances in Ardoyne, the north Belfast scene of what is the only remaining dangerous Orange parade. Afterwards, Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Féin assembly member for the area, said: “Last night was the quietest I have seen for a very long time.” In other words, even the violence had passed off peacefully.

Kelly must have been taking a long view because the previous year, 2014, saw no trouble in north Belfast – although loyalists threw a couple of petrol bombs at the police in the east of the city, apparently in protest at the lack of trouble in Ardoyne.

Endemic violence

That makes three summers in a row considered peaceful or quiet, which is an unprecedented break with tradition in the memory of most people alive. Parade-related violence has been endemic in Northern Ireland since the start of the Drumcree stand-off in 1995. Before that, the Troubles had their own parading flare-up in the mid-1980s, again over a march to Drumcree.

The flag protests from December 2012 threatened to herald a whole new cycle of street disorder. Rioting in Ardoyne the following summer was particularly bad. But then it all suddenly stopped, as if turned off by a tap.

At first, nobody could quite believe it. July 2014 was unusually hot and sunny and the people of Belfast seemed to come blinking out into the light, palpably relieved and a little confused about what to do in their half-shut and deserted city.

The cheesy promotional slogan for the Belfast Agreement – “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?” – was uttered with weary cynicism.

When another peaceful summer followed, however, people dared to hope it was a pattern – and this year, they seem to have taken it for granted. Belfast was thronged this July and August for “non-political” events, concerts and festivals. There did not appear to have been even a brief evacuation over the main parading weekend. The rest of Northern Ireland had already moved on, tut-tutting at the Ardoyne deadlock.

Tensions and temperatures

Who have we to thank for this transformation? Former DUP leader Peter Robinson had the most obvious hand on the tap. In 2014, he brought unionists and loyalists together in the “graduated response”, promising unspecified action over the summer if Ardoyne was not resolved. This turned out to mean no action while tensions and temperatures fizzled out, which was almost certainly his intention.

Last year, a deal was nearly reached on the ground in north Belfast. This year, loyalists withdrew their support from the Orange Order after one Orange lodge rejected a compromise with residents. Consequently, there is an expectation that next year the matter will be settled and summer will pass off peacefully again.

The parading issue descends quickly into mind-numbing detail if analysed as green versus orange. Perhaps it is more interesting to see it in terms of left versus right. For two decades, Westminster and Stormont have tried to fix parading with a top-down “big state” solution – in the British government’s case, through the 1998 creation of the Parades Commission; in the DUP and Sinn Féin’s case, with their 2010 draft Bill on parading, which was rejected by the Orange Order but which both parties have since tried to resurrect through various talks processes, including the latest Fresh Start agreement.

Genuine and selfless

At the same time, there have been ground-up, organic, individual approaches. The kind of negotiations seen in Ardoyne can involve major players with an eye on public money but they also engage the genuine and selfless. Then there are the protagonists who give up and melt away – loyalists at Ardoyne are following their example, rather than leading it.

Finally comes the public sense of a new normal, creating countless quiet determinations to preserve it.

Which is the better response, left or right? Ultimately, we still need both. Ardoyne epitomises the parading question, like Drumcree before it. There always seems to be one such totemic dispute and even if this one is fixed from the ground up, there will always be another without an overarching solution.

For now, though, for the first time in my adult life, I am looking forward to next summer in Northern Ireland.

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