Politicians must speak out against sectarian revival
Once again the Shankill Road’s young have been summoned to act out unionism’s ideological emptiness, writes SUSAN McKAY
THE DECADE of commemorations has begun. Its opening ceremonials included Protestant youths from the North’s first post-conflict generation scaling the wall of a nursing home in Belfast to up-end bins and smash windows behind which elderly people, who have lived through the whole miserable span of the Troubles, cowered and wept in terror.
There were fireworks on the streets – thrown at men and women from the North’s first cross-community police force, and lasers directed at their eyes. The display also included the hurling of petrol bombs, rocks and masonry.
Yes, with just three weeks to go before we mark the centenary of the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant in 1912, the excitement among unionists is already at such a pitch that an assistant chief constable has warned that someone is liable to get killed.
“Who says we are to have Home Rule? Come to Belfast and we’ll show them!” This appears on a poster showing a tough-looking youth striking a street-fighting pose.
Sir Edward Carson was the first to sign the covenant, which declared Home Rule would be “disastrous”.
He went on to oversee loyalist gun-running and “did his fanatic best”, as the poet Tom Paulin has written, “to undermine the legal and political institutions he claimed to revere”.
His maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1921 was, Paulin comments, “a spectacular example of the contradictory, self-pitying, childish and festering sense of grievance which is at the centre of the loyalist mentality”.
The Democratic Unionist Party grew out of Ian Paisley’s shrewd cultivation of this sense of grievance, and last week’s events show the party has not outgrown it, even though Peter Robinson is now not only the undisputed leader of unionism, but also the First Minister in Northern Ireland.
“Big House Unionism” has been eclipsed, the armed struggle for a 32-county Republic has been abandoned and the DUP is now the largest and most powerful party in the Northern Irish Assembly.
Yet just over a week ago, Robinson and other senior DUP figures joined leaders of the so-called Loyal Orders in sending an open letter to the British Secretary of State, warning there could be violence in the streets because of unionist anger over a “monstrous determination” by the “anti-Protestant” Parades Commission.
The commission had banned one flute band from the Shankill Road from taking part in the “Black Saturday” parade past a Catholic church, outside which the same band had played a sectarian tune while marching around in circles during a Twelfth of July parade.
Loyal Order leaders have disingenuously claimed this incident seemed offensive only because the media is also biased against Protestants.
The letter said “untold damage” was being done to the peace process and to “evolving relationships”, and called the parades commissioners “parasites” and the Secretary of State a “Pontius Pilate”. But if anyone has washed their hands of responsibility, it is the authors of this ludicrous and inflammatory letter.
The Parades Commission, which includes Protestant clergy, was set up in 1998 because of the appalling behaviour of the Loyal Orders during their commemorations of the Battle of the Somme at Drumcree.
The DUP and Sinn Féin pledged to find an alternative but failed to do so, largely because of the intransigence of the Loyal Orders.
The Royal Black Preceptory duly defied the Parades Commission ruling last Saturday, and rioting – described by the PSNI as “savage”on the first and fiercest night – followed.
DUP Ministers have said that while they do not condone the latest violence, they understand it. Incredibly, the First Minister has, at time of writing, said nothing.
Orange chaplain Mervyn Gibson suggested unionists were also angry because of talk that paratroopers might be charged (in relation to Bloody Sunday), and in a classic mixed metaphor, spoke of those who had thrown in hand grenades and upset the apple cart.
In the new Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin has not denied its debt to the IRA, promoting former volunteers, some of them responsible for appalling acts, to high office.
Unionism, by contrast, has never admitted its historical reliance on loyalist paramilitarism, and rubbished the socialist leanings of former paramilitaries turned politicians.
Many of last week’s rioters came out of the Shankill Road estate that used to be a UDA stronghold. Its poverty has persisted.
Once again, its young have been summoned to act out unionism’s ideological emptiness, its inability to inspire a new kind of loyalism.
The Republic’s Government was so sure this was all over that it appointed a panel entirely made up of historians to oversee the commemorations, and said it would be happy to welcome “Orangefest”.
It must speak out against this sectarian revival. Who says we are to have dignified and respectful commemorations? Come to Belfast and we’ll show them!