Lessons for US in Northern Ireland's 'marching season'

by Mary Ann McGivern

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Northern Ireland has entered into its annual “marching season,” which culminates on July 12, commemorating the victory of Protestant William of Orange over Catholic James II in 1690 when the Battle of the Boyne was fought on the east coast of Ireland near Drogheda in County Louth.

I started volunteering as an international observer in Northern Ireland in 1999, a few months after the March assassination there of Catholic attorney Rosemary Nelson. Several Irish Catholic lawyers from New York organized the Irish Parades Emergency Committee (IPEC) and recruited nuns to join them who were members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.

Some of us had filed resolutions on behalf of our communities calling on companies that do business in Northern Ireland to adopt a set of equal opportunity principles. We also brought with us a variety of experiences in non-violent direct action.

For nine years I stood on street corners the first two weeks of July, wearing a blue jacket and an IPEC I.D., taking photos of marching bands and making notes about what I saw.

Did the bands observe silence when they marched in front of a Catholic church? No.

Did the police restrict public drinking and the carrying of offensive symbols? No.

Did the police mobilize armored trucks with gun turrets (called Saracens) and water cannons to control the Catholic protesters? Yes.

My mother looked at my photos one year and she got it immediately. “Why, you’re watching the police!” she said.

The police do a better job today, but the parades are still dangerous. I recently took a look at the Parades Commission website. There must be more than a thousand parades that have given notice they will be marching throughout the month. However, as of July 1, only 20 are contested, either because they march past Catholic churches or because of a contentious history. Marchers insist that they are celebrating their rightful heritage by marching through Catholic neighborhoods.

It makes me think of the argument that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the firebrand during the quaintly named “Troubles” of the late-20th century in Northern Ireland, once spoke here in St. Louis.

She said that the Irish Catholics there were like the American blacks -- denied jobs and suffrage and housing; attacked by the police; a population at risk. People in the audience squirmed. They didn’t like the analogy. But I’ve heard it made often in Northern Ireland within the Catholic community.

As far as I can see, most of the people who wield these symbols of supremacy and privilege don’t have the ugly history in the forefront of their minds. The flags and songs are an excuse for drinking and maybe for finding someone to beat up -- in short, for exercising privilege today.

In Ireland, it’s a 325-year history. In the U.S., while the Civil War is just 155 years ago, slavery was introduced here not long before the Battle of the Boyne. We have a lot of heritage to overcome.

So don’t just roll your eyes when you hear reports of violence in Belfast in the Ardoyne district or along Springfield Road. Instead, listen with compassion.

Ireland is doing better and so can we.

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