Orangemen out of step with rhetoric on the right to march

 

IT IS extraordinary to see the Orange Order's justification of its hardened position on the marching season underpinned by the rhetoric of civil liberties and "inalienable" rights.

Sensitivity to loyalist opinion should not require us to lapse into communal amnesia about the past. How was this inalienable right respected when the unionist and loyalist leadership enjoyed full power in the province between 1922 and 1972?

The answer begins in 1922 with the enactment by the new unionist government of the Special Powers Act, or to give it its full title, the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act 1922. This piece of legislation permitted the prohibition by the Minister for Home Affairs of all "meetings, assemblies . . . or processions in public places" without any need first to establish a likelihood or possibility of violence.

It also allowed the prohibition of specific meetings or processions where there appeared to the authorities reason to apprehend grave disorder or a breach of the peace or (even) the promotion of disaffection.

Clearly these broad categories left much to the discretion of the authorities. For much of the early years of the Special Powers Act, the relevant authority was Sir Richard Dawson Bates, a solicitor and justice of the peace who had been cofounder of the UVF hospitals during the war and who had also helped to establish the UVF patriotic fund.

He ran the home affairs ministry for 22 years and, even by the standards of the unionist leadership at its unchallenged zenith, his was an extreme and divisive voice.

Loyalist marches were, however, never affected by the new legal regime. Their rights were indeed inalienable. The Twelfth of July was quickly designated a bank holiday.

In contrast, however, as early as October 1925 a demonstration organised by the Irish Labour Party and the trade unions was banned, as was a march in Linenhall Street, Belfast, which was to have coincided with the official opening of parliament.

The revolutionary and religious resonances of Easter Week made it a very important commemorative time for the nationalist community and, consequently, a particular target of official vigilance.

At an Easter gathering in Milltown cemetery in Belfast on March 5th 1928, eight men were arrested for refusing to take from their lapels a flower that the police present judged to be a nationalist emblem. The men were later held without charge for three weeks under the Special Powers Act.

The following year, Easter processions in Belfast, Derry, Armagh and Newry were proscribed.

This pattern of banning Easter marches in important venues was repeated annually until 1935. On April 20th, 1930, three men were arrested and detained under the Special Powers Act for wearing an emblem with the colours of the Irish Free State. The following year, 12 months hard labour was imposed on two men arrested after Easter week speeches in Newry one of the proscribed areas.

From 1936, the authorities chose the more straightforward route of banning all marches anywhere in Northern Ireland during the whole of Easter week, a formula that was repeated every year until 1948.

Apart from these annual bans the Special Powers Act was also invoked in an ad hoc way to prohibit public demonstrations, particularly in 1933 when gatherings in Belfast, Newry and Derry were proscribed in January and a seven day ban on all meetings was imposed throughout Belfast the following October.

Efforts to hold a nationalist meeting in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh, in November and December 1938 were persistently foiled by the authorities, with the town being made the subject of four such orders issued over a three week period and covering eight separate days.

The particular sensitivity of the ministry may be explained by the fact that the purpose of the meeting was to have been to attack the Government of Ireland Act, with addresses on this subject expected non members of both the Stormont and Westminster parliaments.

"We are not going to tolerate disloyal meetings called in the name of politics with the object of bringing about the disruption of Northern Ireland," an angry Dawson Bates had told the Northern Ireland House of Commons in the midst of the crisis.

After the war, the new Labour administration did lead to some diluting of the worst effects of the Special Powers Act. Many of its regulations were revoked, but the power to control processions remained. In 1948, a St Patrick's Day meeting of the Anti Partition League scheduled for Derry was banned by Northern Ireland's Minister of Home Affairs. Two Westminster MPs were to address the demonstration and similar St Patrick's Day meetings in Derry were prohibited in 1949 and, 1950.

A new Public Order Act, passed in 1951, neatly transformed the control on marches into a matter of ordinary rather than extraordinary law and under its aegis the usual restrictions on the expression of nationalist political sentiments were applied with their usual vigour with meetings suppressed in Derry, Enniskillen, Armagh, Pomeroy, Newtownbutler and Armagh.

After a brief lull, matters reached crisis point in the mid and late 1960s, with the then minister William Craig's making prolific and ultimately counterproductive use of his statutory powers against the newly formed civil rights movement.

Craig's version of liberty and of the inalienability of certain human rights may not have been sectarian but that was how it looked to a substantial minority of those he purported to govern. His repression was not an example of ad hoc extremism but flowed from a tradition of control decades old by then.

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the history remembered by those who now fervently oppose the right of loyalists to march is a history which sees not the upholding of the honourable liberties now invoked by the Orange Order but their persistently selective and sectarian application.