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October 1996


  1. General Principles
  2. Historical Background to Parades & Marches in the North of Ireland
  3. After Drumcree - The Role of the British government, the RUC and the Unionist Leaders
  4. The Law and Marches
  5. Marching towards conflict or agreement
  6. Conclusion - A political solution

1. General Principles

  • The right to march is a democratic right. It is fundamental to the civil and human rights of all citizens.

  • The right to march involves freedom of assembly and freedom of political expression.

  • The right to march is not absolute, it is a right which carries responsibilities; it is a right which must not be misused.

  • In any society, especially a divided society, the right to march must be exercised with due regard for the rights of others.

  • The right to march does not extend to threatening the safety and security in their homes of those through whose districts the marches proceed.

  • Organisers of marches are duty bound to exercise their right to march in such a way that they do not cause offence to those through whose district the march proceeds.

  • Marches should not be organised through districts where it is obvious that the local community will find the marches offensive.

  • Where proposed marches are contentious the host community has a right to be consulted by march organisers. In this way the right to march is balanced against the mutual right of the host community to be consulted when marches are controversial.

  • Where local communities express their objection to a march and appoint representative bodies and spokespersons to express their views the organisers of marches have a duty to meet with these representatives.
  • 2. Historical Background to Parades & Marches in the North of Ireland

    Parades and marches by Loyal Orders in Ireland date back to the 1790s. As expressions of unionist domination over nationalists they have always been a source of resentment and often of conflict.

    A brief look at the historical experience of nationalists in Portadown, County Armagh, where the Drumcree crisis occurred in July 1996, gives an idea of the background. It also refutes the frequently made contention that objections to offensive loyalist parades are a relatively new phenomenon.

    Portadown has been the scene of major Orange parades since 1807 when the first one was held there. They became annual events after 1822. The Orange Order provocatively marched through a nationalist district, The Tunnel, which inevitably became the site of controversy. In every subsequent decade the Portadown parade saw conflict, with nationalists suffering loss of life, injuries to persons, evictions and damage to property.

    In 1825 the Orange Order was banned but parades in Portadown continued. Neither did the ban on parades under the British Party Processions Act of 1832 prevent Orange parades through the nationalist quarter.

    In 1835 a British Parliamentary Select Committee appointed to inquire into the Orange societies in Ireland, observed:

    ``The obvious tendency of the Orange Society is to keep up an exclusive society in civil and military life, exciting one portion of people against the other; to increase the rancour and animosity too often, unfortunately, existing between the different religious persuasions... by processions on particular days, attended with the insignia of the society, to excite to breaches of the peace and to bloodshed.''

    In Portadown as elsewhere, then as now, it was the insistence of the Orange Order on marching through the nationalist quarter that led to conflict. Between 1922 and 1972 under successive Unionist administrations at Stormont the Orange Order became virtually an arm of government. A subdued nationalist population was forced to endure the status of second-class citizenship. At parades of loyal orders government ministers and Unionist MPs were repeatedly heard to remind nationalists of their lower status.

    In March 1972 the Stormont parliament was prorogued by the British government. Between the 26 and 29 March the people of The Tunnel were blockaded and placed under siege by loyalists. When in July 1972 nationalists tried to prevent the unwanted Orange parade from passing through their area by erecting barricades, the British army and RUC were sent in to remove them, using armoured vehicles, tear gas and rubber bullets.

    Having made way for the Orange parade the British forces stood aside while masked and uniformed members of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association lined the route of the march.

    Every year afterwards until 1985 the RUC and British army were deployed to ensure that the Orange Order could march through The Tunnel district. In 1985 a parade was allowed through the Tunnel on 7 July but prevented on 12 and 13 July. This was repeated in subsequent years but Orange marchers were permitted to march through another community in which they were unwelcome - Garvaghy Road - with consequences which are now well known.

    Far from the objections of nationalists to offensive parades being relatively recent they have a long history. The nationalist experience in Portadown as elsewhere is one of bigotry from the Loyal Orders and protection of that bigotry from the British state.

    3. After Drumcree - the role of the British government, the RUC and Unionist leaders

    At many points during the conflict of the past 27 years marches and parades have been flash points for violence and political upheaval. This has often been cited as a manifestation of how the `two communities' cannot live together. The RUC and the British army have been presented as the meat in the sandwich; the political responsibility of British governments has been obscured.

    At the start of the present conflict in 1968 and 1969 it was the contrast between the brutal treatment of Civil Rights marchers by the RUC and that force's allegiance with the loyalist marchers and rioters which so outraged nationalists and alerted world opinion to the true nature of the Orange State.

    That pattern of state backing for loyalist domination as expressed in triumphalist marching continued after the the fall of Stormont. Since then the British government has had direct responsibility for the RUC. That force's record on the issue of marches, and the record of its political masters in London, up to and including the events of 1996, makes a mockery of claims to impartiality.

    Some sections of the nationalist community gave credit to the RUC and the British government for the original decision to re-route the 1996 Orange parade away from Garvaghy Road. This explains the depth and breadth of anger at the reversal of that decision and at how the reversal was brought about. This was expressed by the Irish government on 11 July when it said that it ``runs counter to the previously agreed approach by both governments to accord parity of esteem to both the nationalist and unionist communities''.

    Speaking on BBC on 12 July Taoiseach John Bruton said:

    ``I believe that once a government makes a decision in a democracy under the rule of law that it is going to hold a particular line, it must hold that line. If governments are seen to yield to that sort of pressure then governments will not be taken seriously in the future.''

    The pressure to which the British government yielded amounted to a revolt across the Six Counties led by David Trimble and Ian Paisley and carried out by loyalist organisations. The RUC stood aside while roadblocks closed towns and villages. Larne port and Belfast Harbour and Aldergrove Airports were blockaded. Dozens of Catholic families were driven from their homes, mostly in North Belfast.

    At the height of the revolt on 9 July John Major met David Trimble and Ian Paisley in 10 Downing Street. The Independent newspaper in London reported that it had been told by British government sources on 11 July that in talks with Hugh Annesley, British ministers had from the outset `advocated' that permission be given for the march. The unionist and loyalist leaders had the measure of the British government.

    The British government's decision to bow to the unionist revolt was enforced by the RUC and British army. In contrast to their passive response to loyalist blockaders, their batons and plastic bullets were turned against nationalists on Garvaghy Road and elsewhere across the North.

    The RUC said that 6000 plastic bullets were fired during the Drumcree crisis; 600 at loyalists, but the vast bulk of them at nationalists after the government climbdown. Most of the latter were fired in Derry on 11 and 13/14 July. Also in Derry there was the invasion of the Casualty Department of Altnagelvin Hospital by an RUC riot squad on 11 July and the killing of Dermot McShane by the British army on 14 July. A conservative estimate puts the figure of those injured over these three days at 332.

    Far from being impartial the RUC has shown itself to be a sectarian force, drawn overwhelmingly from the unionist section of the population and implementing the pro-unionist political agenda of the British government.

    The political allegiance of RUC members was clearly evident during the Drumcree crisis. Fraternisation at roadblocks between loyalists and the RUC was widely reported. Millions witnessed the relish with which they forcibly removed peaceful nationalist protesters at Garvaghy Road, Lower Ormeau, Bellaghy, and elsewhere and their use of batons and plastic bullets when they have forced marches through nationalist areas.

    Many in the RUC are members of the Loyal Orders. There is no regulation prohibiting such membership. The restriction on their participation in parades would seem to be widely flouted as witnessed by the suspension announced on 12 August 1996 of an RUC sergeant and three constables in County Fermanagh for participating in parades. The four were all members of the Royal Black Preceptory and the Orange Order.

    Far from granting new powers to the RUC all this points to the need for the disbandment of that force and the creation of a new community-based and impartial policing service.

    The events of the past summer raise equally tough questions for the British government and the unionist party leaders. The commitment of the unionist leaders to peaceful and democratic methods as outlined by the Mitchell Principles was proved to be false as they allied themselves to loyalist paramilitaries and led a revolt across the Six Counties. David Trimble met with Billy Wright at Drumcree in the week when the Portadown UVF murdered Catholic civilian Michael McGoldrick.

    Similarly the British government's armed forces committed many acts of violence, killing Dermot McShane in Derry and seriously injuring dozens of people with plastic bullets. That government of course bears overall political responsibility for the events of the summer and for the years of policy which led up to them.

    In light of the role of the unionist parties and the British government the continued exclusion by them of Sinn Fein representatives from the Stormont talks process on the basis of ``support for violence'' is ironic indeed.

    4. The law and marches

    Sinn Fein is not convinced that further legislation or new powers are either necessary or desirable to deal with the issue of marches. Legislation is only helpful if it is just and is administered by an impartial body. In the Six Counties it would be enforced by the RUC which is seen by the majority of nationalists as a sectarian and unacceptable force.

    The partisan enforcement of existing legislation by the RUC is a major factor in the build-up of tension surrounding parades. Public order legislation has been used to prevent nationalist parades from entering town centres.

    The banning of parades is not a solution and the placing of areas under curfew is an injustice.

    The fear is that new and greater powers for the state with regard to marches would again be used in a partial way.

    What is needed is a political solution.

    5. Marching towards conflict or agreement

    Given their historical experience of discrimination and bigotry institutionalised by the Orange Order and the Stormont state, it is remarkable that nationalists have not raised more objections to parades by loyal orders.

    RUC statistics show that in 1995 there were 2497 loyalist parades as against 191 nationalist/republican parades. It is estimated that nationalist communities objected to less than 1% of the loyalist parades.

    Despite the history, the sectarian nature and the frequency of the loyalist parades we believe that nationalists have shown an immense capacity for tolerance.

    But it is the handling of parades where there is community opposition that has caused conflict and has again raised the marching issue to the top of the political agenda. The Loyal Orders, the RUC and the British government bear the primary responsibility for all of this.

    The right to march must be respected but it cannot be absolute. It must take secondary position to the rights of the community on which it would impinge. The right of the host community to refuse permission for a parade which they find objectionable must be paramount.

    In general people should have the right to march in the major commercial centres of towns and cities. This right would have to be weighed against the probable disruption to the commercial life and the freedom of movement of the host community. Villages and small towns where the vast majority of the population is from one section of the community should not be subjected to parades which are clearly seen by that community as offensive unless of course there is negotiation and agreement with the host community.

    It must be accepted as a fact of life that natural movement of population will cause changes in the demography of areas and therefore the tradition of marching a particular road or route cannot be used as the main criterion for the right to march.

    The organisers of parades must accept responsibilitry for the actions of those participating in their marches.

    Sinn Fein's policy on parades is long established and implemented. We have always had our own code of practice. Where a march had potential to cause offence to the loyalist community we have voluntarily rerouted. This was the case for example with the Internment Anniversary march in Belfast on 11 August 1996 which we rerouted away from Black's Road, and also the Unionist part of the Donegal Pass area.

    Sinn Fein does not organise parades through loyalist areas. Of the relatively small number of nationalist parades none have caused the controversy and conflict associated with loyalist parades.

    The past summer has seen some of the worst disturbances for many years as a result of the provocative nature of some loyalist parades. It must be recognised that the worst confrontations were at parades organised by the Orange Order.

    There were positive developments in areas such as Derry where the Governor and Secretary of the Apprentice Boys had face to face negotiations with representatives of the Bogside Residents Group. This was then followed by negotiations between the Bellaghy Residents Group and representatives of the Black Preceptory and negotiations in other areas such as Dunloy, Strabane and Newry.

    These negotiations highlighted the differing attitudes of the Apprentice Boys and Black Preceptory on one hand and the Orange Order on the other. The latter body has yet to show any signs that it accepts the need for agreement with the host community in which they intend to march.

    6. Conclusion - A Political Solution

    The accommodation and compromise reached by some local areas such as Bellaghy, County Derry, and between the Derry Apprentice Boys and Bogside Residents in the summer of 1996 cannot be used as an excuse by those in positions of political leadership to abdicate their responsibility.

    On the contrary these local accommodations reached through dialogue should serve as an example to unionist political leaders to assume their responsibility to reach agreement on codes of practice, based on principles of equality, which would apply to all contentious parades.

    The ruling out by march organisers of clearly objectionable marches, and voluntary rerouting where objections are articulated by community representatives, are acts of common sense and common courtesy. There is no reason why the Loyal Orders cannot adopt these practices.

    Genuine and voluntary negotiation between parade organisers and residents groups is the path to accommodation and agreement. Any other course of action can only be seen as an attempt to impose sectarian discrimination.

    There needs to be a clear recognition of their obligations by the leaders of the unionist parties, the Loyal Orders and the Protestant churches. All are required to encourage and facilitate negotiation and agreement at the highest levels as well as locally.

    Sinn Fein for its part has encouraged dialogue and negotiation and will continue to do so.

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