Members of the new Northern Ireland Assembly don’t have the luxury of looking at events from such Olympian heights. If all they had to do was lead the province’s people out of the 20th century, they might have reason to take a breath and cast an eye on the long view. Unfortunately, though, the divisions in Northern Ireland are a product not of the 20th century, but of the 17th.
On July 12, members of Northern Ireland’s famous fraternity, the Orange Order, once again will parade through the streets of the province’s cities and villages, taunting Catholics, reminding them of who supposedly runs this little corner of Ireland. The July 12 parades, which commemorate the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange (hence the Orange Order) over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, have been a fixture in Northern Ireland since its inception in 1921. This year, however, the government that issues permits and polices the parades has changedutterly.
Sinn Fein, the political representatives of the Irish Republican Army, holds two ministerial posts in the power-sharing executive. The I.R.A., one might argue, now holds political power in Northern Ireland. The Orange parades, then, will have an even sharper edge: The marchers will be defying the spirit of the new, inclusive government, as well as baiting Catholics.
This year’s parades will be a test of the great new arrangement in Northern Ireland. And it will be a prolonged test. The Orangemen, with their bowler hats, white gloves and orange sashes, start parading in early July and finish up in early August. Hence the phrase "marching season."
The home rule government, over which a former Orangeman, David Trimble, presides as First Minister, has yet to face a marching season. Trimble’s former comrades in the Orange Order will be looking for signs that he has "sold out" the province’s Protestant majority. The marchers delight in taking their parades through predominately Catholic neighborhoods. Should Trimble deny access to such areas, or agree with attempts to reroute marches, he will be denounced as a traitor to his religion and heritage. On the other hand, if he does not try to protect Catholic neighborhoods from the taunts of the Orangemen, his Sinn Fein partners in government will condemn him for caving in to Orange demands.
By the time July is over, David Trimble may well understand how John F. Kennedy felt during a particularly tense time in his administration. As he consulted with Congressional leaders, Kennedy turned to Senator Barry Goldwater, a prospective opponent in 1964, and said: "And you want this job?" (I think I may have left out an adjective or two.)
The marching season is an open sore on Northern Ireland’s body politic. Despite the arguments of partisans on both sides, there is no easy answer. The parades should not be banned. But no government should treat lightly one group’s expressions of loathing for another group. What to do?
The answer, I believe, is nothing, or at least as little as possible. As I’ve written in this space before, it is not easy to remain temperate and objective when faced with the unadulterated bigotry in display in the Orange marches. I’ve been on Great Victoria Street in Belfast on July 12; I’ve witnessed first-hand the anti-Catholic slogans and chants that are part of the great day’s fun and games. It is frightening and infuriating. But what if nobody were frightened, and what if nobody chose to show their fury? The Orange Day parades succeed only when Northern Ireland’s Catholics display anger rather than pity, and fear rather than that ultimate slight, indifference. Like more modern rituals in our media culture, the Orange Day parades would shrivel up very quickly if nobody paid any attention.
Yes, it’s easy for an American Catholic to preach dispassion on such a passionate subject. No rampaging mob is likely to gather outside my door, or, if one does, it will consist of an easily dispersed group of creative writing teachers, grammarians and the occasional managing editor. (Simply shouting the phrase "between you and I" from behind a secure barricade probably would bring such a group to its knees.) Still, it seems clear that when a deliberately provocative march fails to provoke, well, the stout-hearted marchers might soon find better ways to spend a mid-July afternoon in Ireland.
The rituals of Orange Day are, in fact, laughable, and they should be treated as such. And it ought to be kept in mind that the Orange Day marchers do not represent Protestant opinion in Northern Ireland. The Orangemen speak only for themselves and for their favorite century, the 17th.
The rest of Northern Irelandindeed, the whole of the islandhas embraced the promise of peace. And peace means sharing power. The ethnic triumphalism of July 12 had run its course. Take a good look at the news clips you’ll see on television in a few days. You’ll be watching the end of an era.