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Dublin: 6 °C Saturday 20 December, 2014

Column: Surely Loyalist marchers want a better image than this?

The violence during parades in Belfast last weekend have David McCann pondering the need for Unionism to appeal to Catholics as well as Protestants.

David McCann

THE SCENES OF violence during a Last Saturday parade in Belfast illustrates the serious image problem that exists for organisations like the Royal Black Institution and its counterpart the Orange Order.

The marching season in Northern Ireland has always had its contentious parades – from the Garvaghy Road in Portadown to the Ardoyne Shops in North Belfast – but this year has given birth to a new flashpoint, a Catholic Church, near the city centre. The origins of this disturbance began on 12th July when a band called the Young Conway Volunteers were filmed parading in a circle outside the church resulting in the Parades Commission placing restrictions on the march that took place on Saturday.

The open defiance of the marchers and the resulting attacks on members of the PSNI begs me to ask what do organisations such as the ones mentioned above want to stand for in 2012.

For a long time I have watched people on both sides of the parades debate play the blame game over whose fault it was when the inevitable trouble kicked off over a parade passing through a contentious area or a protestor who threw the first stone. I am not in this column trying to determine blame or point a finger at a certain organisation but watching the stream of police Land Rovers leaving Antrim Road police station on Saturday I got to thinking that surely Loyalist marchers would want better images than this to come to people’s minds when they hold a parade.

“Provocative songs played primarily to antagonise?”

Surely as we enter this decade of commemorations that include important events such as the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the Battle of the Somme, these marchers would rather not have front page images of police officers on the ground injured and people cheering as provocative songs are played primarily to antagonise the neighbouring community?

Since the creation of the Parades Commission in 1998, Loyalist marchers have continuously felt that their attempts to celebrate important cultural events have been curtailed. Yet their frustration at this slight has seen not their ultimate figure of opposition the Commission in the firing line but the police who for years Loyalists lauded and continuously swore ultimate loyalty too.

This illustrates the necessity for organisations such as the Orange Order to adopt a new narrative in 2012 but how can they do this?

This coming month is the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. The iconic picture of Unionist leader Edward Carson signing the pledge to fight the introduction of home rule in Ireland will no doubt be displayed on banners in marches by the very same people who took part on the parades this past Saturday.

Yet while they are celebrating this historic event they could do well to think about where they want their own organisations and Unionism to be in a hundred years. The leaders of Unionism then give the Unionists of today an important lesson and that is important of adapting and changing with the times. Recent surveys conducted from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey to the Belfast Telegraph all indicate that attitudes religious attitudes particularly among Catholics to staying within the United Kingdom have been on the rise over the past decade.

“The desire to see the incorporation of Catholics into Unionism”

While the advocation of Protestant values in a new Northern Ireland state within the United Kingdom might have worked to mobilise the population in 1912, recent demographic shifts show the futility of such a strategy in 2012. If the Unionism today is determined to build a political coalition that can carry them over the next century then part and parcel of that must be the desire to see the incorporation of Catholics into the heart of Unionism.

The provocative scenes displayed on the streets of Belfast this Saturday and the silence of Unionist politicians to condemn such actions will certainly do nothing to help bring more Catholics into supporting the Unionist parties. Are some Unionist organisations ready to make big changes to incorporate the changes that have taken place since 1912? I do not know. But more than ninety years after the partition of the country it would appear that little strategic thinking about the future has taken place as to how Unionism can extend its reach beyond the Protestant community.

While the celebrations of the centenary of the signing of the covenant take place, the marchers who took gleeful pleasure on the actions that took place should pay heed to the words of Carson when he spoke to the Unionist Council in 1921 about necessity of incorporating Catholics into the Northern Ireland state.

If Unionism ever wants build the ‘strong house’ on the island of Ireland that David Trimble spoke of in 1998, then it must be prepared to throw open its doors to any and all that comprise the North of Ireland in 2012.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.

Read previous columns by David McCann>

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