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Saturday, 6 July, 2002, 10:17 GMT 11:17 UK
A day to celebrate?
Harold Gracey, Portadown District Grand Master at a previous Drumcree parade
Drumcree parade has been restricted for the fifth year
The BBC's Ireland Correspondent, Denis Murray, explains why the marching season provokes such antagonism between Northern Ireland's divided communities.

The most complaints from the public I ever generated as a BBC correspondent were sparked by a scriptline, not long after the paramilitary ceasefires in the mid-1990s.

It was the arrival of an American politician, and the pictures showed stair rods of rain at Belfast International Airport.

Soliders patrol near Drumcree church in Portadown
Many Protestants and Catholics go on holiday during marching season
The script read: "So and so arrived to find out two truths about Northern Ireland - it's always raining and there's always a row."

Well, I took dog's abuse; most of it on the lines of "that young fella should be promoting this place, not putting it down", (Secretly, I just loved the "young fella" bit).

The point of all this digression is this - while this may be the worst summer so far in more than 40 years in this part of the world, it always seems that the sun shines on the 12th of July.

Living in the past

That is the day of the biggest parades for the Orange Order in Northern Ireland's hugely divisive marching season.

It commemorates the victory of Protestant Prince William of Orange over Catholic King James in 1690.

It was more than 300 years ago, but might as well be "the day before yesterday" in Northern Ireland terms.


The only predictable thing about Drumcree is that it is unpredictable

Denis Murray

As a colleague memorably remarked on a flight back from London, just as the plane was about to touch down, "You are now in Belfast. Please set your watches to local time, 1690."

And before any English readers get too smug about all this - what do you put on top of your fifth of November bonfire? A guy. Actually, an effigy of a Catholic called Guy Fawkes, involved in the so-called Gunpowder Plot of 1605. So it is us with long memories, is it? So it is us who are sectarian, is it?

Harold Gracey, Portadown District Grand Master at a previous Drumcree parade
There will be a reduced security force at Drumcree this year
So, back to the weather. After the talks at Hillsborough Castle involving the British and Irish prime ministers this week, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, gave a news conference.

He pointed out that Northern Ireland must be the only place in the world where one of the summer months, July, was anticipated with apprehension - not just because of the rotten weather, but because of the tensions that erupt because of the marches. And he's right.

Anyone - Protestant or Catholic, and there are plenty - who has the view that they simply don't need the grief - simply hits the road and gets out.

Squaring the circle

A piece of truth about the parades - for many years, they weren't that controversial.

Protestants viewed them simply as "traditional" - if they thought about a rationale for them at all - and Catholics, who viewed them as "triumphalist" and a way of reminding them they were the second class citizens in Northern Ireland society, just ignored them, or went on holiday.


The real test, as it has been for some years, is what will happen elsewhere, particularly in Belfast

Denis Murray
The recent history, though, is very different. And that's almost entirely because of the most controversial march, at Drumcree, near Portadown in County Armagh.

At the same time, there is evidence that Sinn Fein used marches through Catholic areas, to spark a street issue they lacked for years.

That said, the marching season now brings out the worst in everybody.

Even middle class Protestants get angry and cannot understand why a parade that went down a main thoroughfare for centuries is now controversial just because Catholics live there, after demographic change.

And even middle class Catholics get angry and cannot understand why the "Prods" don't get that the marches are offensive to them.

That is a circle that is going to take some squaring - especially after the Hillsborough meeting, where the British and Irish prime ministers accepted there is a major crisis of confidence among the Protestant (unionist) population about the workings of the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey laid a laurel wreath at the Cenotaph
Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey laid a laurel wreath at the Cenotaph
But here's a thing - there might just be signs emerging that the worst could be over.

First: the one-time hugely controversial parade of one of the loyal orders, the Apprentice Boys in Londonderry (Derry to the Catholic majority there) has been fairly quiet for the last few years.

Okay, both sides in that city believe there is no place on earth like it, and are not about to rip up a newly affluent and burgeoning city. But it's one sign.

Second: Drumcree itself has become the calm eye of the storm, the Orange Order there departing quietly after their Service of Divine Worship is over. And while still seeking the right to walk through a Catholic area, seeming to accept that that is not, realistically, going to happen for a while.

This year, there will be a reduced security force presence at Drumcree, and the general anticipation is that it will be quiet. (Health warning: the only predictable thing about Drumcree is that it's unpredictable).

Optimistic signs

The real test, as it has been for some years, is this - what will happen elsewhere, particularly in Belfast, where there was huge rioting in the Ardoyne area of the city last year on the 12th itself, which no one had predicted.

And following other recent disturbances in east Belfast, there's always the tinder box factor at work.

There was a small but significant moment in Belfast this week.

Alex Maskey, the newly elected lord mayor of Belfast, laid a laurel wreath at the cenotaph at Belfast City Hall. Big deal? Surely not.

Orangemen hand a letter of protest to police
Orangemen hand a letter of protest to police
Actually, yes. Mr Maskey is the first Sinn Fein member to hold the post and he has a reputation as one of the hardest of Irish republican hard men.

Mr Maskey led the entire Sinn Fein membership of the council to the cenotaph.

Fair enough, it was two hours before the traditional ceremony; and fair enough, the wreath wasn't a poppy one - but the laurel remained undisturbed when the poppies were laid at that traditional ceremony.

That was a huge step by Sinn Fein, who regard even Irish Catholics who fought at the Battle of the Somme in World War One (when the 36th Ulster Division was slaughtered in that ill-fated attack) as members of "British Crown Forces".

So maybe, just maybe, (and I stress the just maybe), something might be sinking in. "They, themuns, the other side" might just have something to remember, and maybe even to celebrate.

Now - the day that becomes the norm, and becomes obvious, truly will be a day for all sides to celebrate.

No matter what the weather on the 12th of July.

Find out more about the Drumcree dispute in Northern Ireland

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See also:

01 Jul 02 | N Ireland
27 Jun 02 | N Ireland
01 Jul 01 | N Ireland
05 Jul 01 | N Ireland
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