Parading Protestants and Consenting Catholics in Northern Ireland: Communal Conflict, Contested Public Space, and Group Rights

Article excerpt

After several hours of stalemate when the RUC stopped the parade from marching through a Catholic area of Portadown, several hundred more Protestants joined the demonstrations. In response the RUC drafted in extra riot police as tension grew after all entrances were blocked off by the RUC to prevent the march. Hundreds of police officers used Land Rovers to close off the routes while Republicans blocked the Garvaghy Road along which the Orangemen traditionally parade after the annual service at Drumcree Parish Church, just outside the County Armagh town. The 800 Orangemen remained outside the church hoping they might be allowed to march. It was the first time the parade had been blocked off in 200 years.1

I. INTRODUCTION

This description of the police in Northern Ireland, then called the Royal Ulster Constabulary ("RUC"), now the Police Service of Northern Ireland ("PSNI"), blocking a "traditional" parade held by the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization, from a route that took it through a largely Catholic housing estate, typifies the ongoing conflict over parades in Northern Ireland. Whilst the details of this dispute, born out of a conflict with religious, ethnic, and national dimensions, are specific to Northern Ireland, similar problems exist in many parts of the world. They are disputes of a similar nature to those over the temple at Ayodia in India and the clash over the Temple of the Mount in Jerusalem, and they raise issues comparable to those generated by the wearing of Islamic headdresses in schools in France. They highlight issues of religious tolerance, a core problem for philosophers, political scientists, lawmakers, and managers of conflict alike.2 Claims to rights of freedom of expression, speech, and assembly are often accompanied by attempts to secure legitimization of religious belief and traditional practice.

Whilst not all such disputes are part of broader nationalist claims to self-determination, as is the case in Jerusalem and Portadown, many such as those at Ayodia and in French schools do have important implications for the state and ideas of nation in the places where they occur and also often have transnational consequences. These disputes capture some fundamental political and legal issues around group and individual rights and rights of citizenship. They frequently symbolize apparent conflict between majority and minority populations within countries and therefore come under the watchful gaze of international bodies such as the UN and within the scope of international legislation.3 The international implications of these disputes have become even clearer under the redefined notions of world politics post-September 11, where clashes of religion, culture, and civilization have replaced the clashes between political systems that defined the Cold War era.

In this Article, I examine the communal divisions in Northern Ireland, particularly the disputes over parades, how the United Kingdom government has attempted to deal with such disputes, the influence of international precedent, and the implications for future legislation in Northern Ireland. I argue that whilst attempts made by the UK government since 1995 to resolve the disputes have often been inadequate, there are no easy answers. International instruments, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and cases in the Ruropean Court have provided only the most limited of guidance for a possible resolution. I tentatively suggest that legalistic approaches, using the language of rights, have been of limited use in attempting to resolve communal aspects of the conflict and indeed that these approaches threaten, in some respects, to heighten the conflict.

II. COMMUNITY DIVISIONS AND CONFLICT IN NORTHERN IRELAND

Northern Ireland is a complex and modern Western European society with large disparities in class and wealth. It suffers from many of the same social and economic problems as other Western European and North American countries. …