The Orange marching season in the north of Ireland always provides its share of problems. Some of it is the mundane business of finding a way through the inevitable traffic chaos that results from major Orange demonstrations. But this year, as in previous years, a small number of contentious Orange parades have been the focus for confrontation and conflict.
There is also no doubt that a tiny element of so-called dissident republican groups – some of whom are little more than criminal gangs – were able to mobilise an antisocial element to engage in street disorder. Their efforts in Ardoyne failed to stop the Orange march they opposed but succeeded in disrupting life for the nationalist community.
Their actions also succeeded in taking the spotlight off the loyal orders. The fact is that violence around Orange marches is not new. These marches have been responsible for sectarian strife in the 19th century, the 20th and now the 21st century.
But this is not an entirely Irish phenomenon. English Tories have exploited it since the first Home Rule bill in 1886. The Conservatives played the “Orange card” then, and won. William Gladstone lost power and Randolph Churchill subsequently coined the phrase: “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!” In an echo of this the present British secretary of state Owen Paterson joined with the Orange Order and the unionist parties in a pre-election effort earlier this year to secure unionist unity.
Those who do not learn the lessons of history are often doomed to repeat them: 41 years ago it was an Orange march in Derry that led to the Battle of the Bogside and the pogroms in Belfast. And the following year, 1970, it was another Orange march on the Springfield Road in west Belfast that led to the first serious confrontation between nationalists and the British army.
Little wonder that host communities feel besieged and are fearful when the marching orders insist on parading through areas where they are not wanted. The Orange Order still refuses to talk directly to the host communities.
Earlier this year the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed a new way forward to resolve this issue. It seeks to legally protect the rights of the marching orders, and equally those of host communities. Two weeks ago the “Grand Lodge” of the Orange Order rejected the draft proposals.
I have written again this year to the leaderships of the marching orders asking to meet. I have received no reply. At its core this refusal to talk is about power. For more than 150 years the Orange Order was the glue that held together the interests of the unionist political and business establishment and its urban and rural working class.
After partition, the northern state was their state. It didn’t matter that some unionists lived in appalling housing or worked in terrible conditions. The northern state – the Orange state – belonged to them. Orangeism gave unionists a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority.
And now all of that is changing. The sectarian certainties of the past have gone. Political unionism has compromised, and executive and assembly power is based on equality. And the Orange community finds it difficult, and some within it impossible, to come to terms with the new realities.
So the issue of parades is only a manifestation of a bigger problem – sectarianism. Tackling this and breaking down the prejudices that exist within unionism and Orangeism is one of the big challenges facing all of us. But the starting point must be dialogue. And this is particularly important in light of the efforts by some on the fringes of unionism and nationalism to provoke conflict and street disorder in recent days.
Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, member of the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland for West Belfast and abstentionist MP for West Belfast at Westminster.