Comment: Paleo-Unionism needs to fully accept equality and tolerance

Paleo-Unionism needs to fully accept equality and tolerance in the new Northern Ireland, writes Kevin Meagher.


‘A bird needs two wings to fly’ goes the old saying about Northern Ireland’s peace process. But are events this summer seeing one wing flapping a lot harder than the other?

Last month, during the traditional July 12th marches (which commemorate the victory of Protestant King William over Catholic King James in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690), a loyalist flute band parading past St. Patrick’s Catholic church on Donegall Street in North Belfast was caught on film playing “The Famine Song” a violent sectarian ditty, beloved of hardcore Rangers football fans.

This was played outside St. Patrick’s while the band marched round and round in a circle outside in what can only have been a calculated insult. Indeed, a man filming the encounter was physically attacked by members of the band – all too well aware how the issue would be seen through the eyes of any right-thinking person.

The Protestant loyal orders’ ‘right’ to parade through mainly Catholic areas is a long-running sore. An annual ritual of remembering their heritage to some Protestants, the marches are an unwanted symbol of triumphalism and hatred in the Catholic communities that the orders insist on marching through.

This is why the Parades Commission was established – to mediate over contentious marches where possible and adjudicate where necessary. It frequently finds itself pleasing no-one.

But its judgements should be upheld. Two weeks ago a repeat parade past St. Patrick’s by another loyal order, the Royal Black Institution, went ahead, despite being banned by the commission. Mainstream unionist politicians did little to dissuade marchers. These events provided the context to three nights of rioting this last week which injured 60 police officers.

People in Great Britain looking on will be forgiven for assuming nothing much ever changes in Northern Ireland. Yet on the other side of the aisle, real efforts are being made by republicans to show unionists they mean what they say about conflict resolution.

Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone, Pat Doherty, surprised many recently when it was revealed he personally lobbied for an arts grant for Castlederg Young Loyalist Flute Band, on the basis they had participated in cross-border folk and traditional music events.

He said:

“I am not naïve but this application for new instruments was worth endorsing.”

Similarly, a Sinn Fein councillor in County Tyrone, Ciaran McElhone, wrote to the Arts Council last October on behalf of Drumnacross flute band after they were denied funding.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein’s summer school this weekend included speakers like Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were murdered in the IRA’s bombing of a fish shop on the loyalist Shankill Road in 1993. Also speaking was Frankie Gallagher from the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), which is close to the former terrorist group, the Ulster Defence Association. And traditional Irish music movement Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann is in talks about removing any nationalist symbols – including the Irish flag – which may upset unionists ahead of next year’s Tyrone fleadh, in a bid to build bridges.

Efforts at reconciliation are clearly being made, but everyone has to play their part.

There are now tentative signs unionists are pulling back from the precipice in North Belfast. A statement by the Royal Black Institution on Thursday evening gave a qualified apology to the clergy and parishioners of St. Patrick’s church “for any offence caused”. However, the main focus of their open letter was to continue griping about the Parades Commission.

Still, this move provides a much needed opening for dialogue. The Orange Order has applied to march past the same church, on September 29th, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant (when nearly half a million Protestants signalled their opposition to Home Rule for Ireland). It says it is having “quiet conversations” aimed at avoiding further tension.

This needs to amount to something as this proposed march is shaping up to be a significant flashpoint. Ultimately, unionists need to fully accept that responsibility for resolving community tensions and building a new shared future rests with everyone at every level.

No-one is saying they cannot celebrate their heritage. But there is no room for a paleo-unionist mindset which refuses to accept that equality and tolerance lie at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

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