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Saturday, 8 July, 2000, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Protestant Marches: A line in the sand
Drumcree: All calm ahead of Sunday's march
Drumcree: Calm before the storm
The BBC's Ireland Correspondent, Denis Murray, explains why the marching season provokes such antagonism between Northern Ireland's divided communities.

Nothing has divided Northern Ireland as much in recent years as the issue of marches by what are known as the Loyal Orders.

To Protestants, the parades are an expression of their heritage and culture, to Catholics, they are nothing but an exhibition of provocative, sectarian triumphalism.

The largest of the orders is the Orange Order, with something like 75,000 members (the two others are the Apprentice Boys of Derry, named after the 13 apprentice boys who closed the gates of the city after treachery during the siege there in 1689, and the Royal Black Preceptory). It was founded in the late 1700s to protect Protestant rights.

'Civil and religious right'

To the Protestants of today, the right to march the Queen's highway in their own country is an absolute, as they marched where they liked for decades.
Marchers
Soldiers keep a close watch on the Protestant marchers

The biggest celebration is on the 12th of July, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when King William of Orange defeated the Stuart King James. The legacy of history is that it was a victory of Protestantism over Catholicism, though the reality was somewhat different.

For years in Northern Ireland, the Catholic population simply looked the other way on the 12th, or took their holidays, and let "the Prods" get on with it.

That changed dramatically in 1992.

Antagonism and strife

An Orange Order parade passed along the lower part of the Ormeau Road, once a staunchly Protestant area (to this day, the outline of a mural of King William crossing the Boyne on his white charger can still be seen on a gable wall here) and now, at least on one side of the arterial road, a Catholic area.
Barrier
Orangemen at the Garvaghy Road barrier

In February that year, five Catholics were murdered in a betting shop by loyalist (Protestant) gunmen for no other reason than their religion.

As the parade passed by, some taking part in the march, and many hangers-on, jeered at the local residents, and made "five-nil" hand signs. It was a turning point in relations between the residents and the organisation.

As Catholic political confidence in Northern Ireland has grown, so has their demand for equality of treatment - the right to say "no" to what they see as the worst kind of abuse that Catholic areas have endured from the Orange Order over the years - parades stopping outside Catholic churches, the "Kick the Pope" bands they frequently use playing louder and the order's leadership every year picking one predominantly Catholic village for a 12th parade

In the words of one leading Orangeman to me 10 years ago: "You have to keep the roads open."

In fact, to listen to the Orange Order, their approach at times has been that everyone is out of step but them - they won't talk to the newly-appointed independent Parades Commission, and they absolutely won't talk to the Catholic residents groups as they believe they are dominated by members of Sinn Fein and former IRA terrorists.

Their attitude at times appears to be anyone saying "no" to them is doing the work of sinister republican forces.

There are hundreds of marches in non-controversial areas. All the contentious ones are in areas where the route is considered "traditional" by the lodges, but has become predominantly Catholic by demographic or housing policy change.

In short, it appears to Catholics that there is no point in the Orange Order existing if it doesn't get to march through Catholic areas to let the whole Catholic population know they are still Ulster's second class citizens.

Compromises

All of that said, the Loyal Orders have done as much as they believe they can by way of compromise in the last few years to make the marches acceptable and inoffensive.

In the controversial areas, the orders began banning hangers-on and the bands accompanying the individual lodges were instructed not to play. Some of lodges even considered whether the playing of hymns common to both traditions would appear less sinister to Catholics than either silence or the beat of a single snare drum used to keep the march time.

In 1997, after the Orders' members were allowed to march the controversial part of the key Drumcree parade, it announced that it was abandoning plans for four other marches in crunch areas.

That won considerable praise for taking the heat out of the remainder of the marching season. But since then, the Orders feel they have yet to receive anything back from the government, the residents or the Parades Commission.

A few years ago, the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, speaking in private to a large group of the party's activists was secretly recorded saying there had been a lot of effort to exploit the marching issue. This convinced the Orders that many of the residents' groups were simply republican puppets.

The groups have offered no compromise whatsoever until the Orangemen engage in dialogue with them.

The whole issue is really about who's winning.

The Orange Order feels strongly that the Protestant communuty has been losing since the early 1970s and that the marches are the "last stand" issue for them and protecting their cultural identity.

In contrast, the Catholic community, growing in confidence, wants visible signs that they are now first-class citizens too.

The line in the sand for both communities was never going to be blown away easily by the winds of the new century or the new political landscape of the Good Friday Agreement.

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