The Marching Season in Northern Ireland

By Boyd, Andrew | Contemporary Review, August 1994 | Go to article overview

The Marching Season in Northern Ireland


Boyd, Andrew, Contemporary Review


NORTHERN Ireland is now coming towards the end of what is called the Marching Season, five months of intense and almost daily demonstration of Ulster's loyalty. With their fifes and drums and their brightly-painted banners, men all over Northern Ireland trudge along the highways and the by-ways, all draped in orange, blue and purple. There is rowdy enthusiasm in some places, grim-faced solemnity in others. The Marching Season also includes a small number of what the men with the banners would regard as `disloyal' demonstrations. At Easter the Sinn Fein Party commemorates the 1916 Rising in Dublin and proclaims again the rebel republic. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an archaic Catholic brotherhood whose once-powerful political influence has now almost entirely vanished, parades on St. Patrick's Day and on 15 August, a Catholic Church holy day.

The Sinn Fein Party also commemorates three more recent events -- the internment of the IRA in August 1971, the Bloody Sunday Massacre in January 1972, and the IRA hunger strike deaths in 1980-81. These three new commemorations have become `traditional' and are included in the Calendar of the Marching Season. They are permitted by the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary but forbidden to proceed beyond the boundaries of the Catholic ghettos, a restriction which the Chief Constable enforces by setting up cordons of armed men and armoured vehicles. Armed men and armoured cars, helicopters, Alsatian dogs, two-way radio and all the other paraphernalia of military containment, including twenty-foot high barriers of scaffolding and canvas at potential flashpoints along the processional routes, are now as much part of the Marching Season in Northern Ireland as the fifes, the drums, the banners and the demonstrators following one another in rank and file.

There was a time when there was no military presence and few policemen at any of the parades. The Marching Season was then less intense. Orangemen, Junior Orangemen, Blackmen, and Apprentice Boys of Derry -- these being the loyal demonstrators -- marched out only on Easter Tuesday, on the last Saturday in August, and on the anniversaries of the Battle of the Somme (1 July), the Battle of the Boyne (12 July) and the Siege of Derry (12 August). Today the loyal parades far outnumber those of the Hibernians and the Sinn Fein Party and seem, moreover, to be increasing in number year by year. In 1971 Sir Robert Porter, who was at that time Minister of Home Affairs in the Northern Ireland Government, estimated, on the information he received from the RUC, that there were about 1,300 separate demonstrations during the Marching Season. There are now more than 2,000, and there will be even more during 1995 when Orangemen celebrate the 200th anniversary of the formation of their movement on 21 September, 1795.

The first Orange parades were held soon afterwards, in Lurgan and Portadown, on 12 July 1796. Apart from the years when all parades were banned by Act of Parliament, the Orangemen have been marching since, nowadays with such zeal and determination and in such great numbers that large parts of Northern Ireland become impassable to normal traffic. The police, however, do not normally restrict the loyalist parades. They divert the traffic instead, and often into alternative routes that are so long, tiring and frustrating that drivers find it advisable to remain indoors. This enforced restriction on travel is, furthermore, not the only public nuisance caused by the parades. The local authorities, for example, have responsibility for clearing away what could be a thousand tons of litter left in the streets by the marchers themselves and by those who come to watch and applaud. In many places people find themselves under what amounts to a form of one-day house arrest when major demonstrations, as on 12 July, are under way.

No doubt there have been periods, in the past 200 years, when Orange parades have passed peacefully and without incident. …

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