Life in NI is immeasurably better than it was during the violence. However we should not mistake the peace we have for a solution to the main problem – sectarianism. Sectarianism continues to pervert every aspect of our existence in NI. For many people, the Twelfth is the epitome of sectarianism. I am not someone who thinks that the loyal orders are equivalent to the Ku Klux Klan, as is often claimed. There are no doubt many people within the loyal orders – and more especially among those who follow the parades but do not participate in them – who mightn’t appear too out of place in that environment. Equally, there are many ordinary decent people for whom membership of the loyal orders is an embodiment of a deeply-held faith and/or a family tradition. These type of people tend not to be the crass bigots that some of their brethren are. So while the origins of the loyal orders lie in reaction, and while it has a far from proud record, we must be careful not to tar everyone in it with the same brush.
In that respect there are comparisons with the GAA. A lot of unionists – completely wrongly in my view – regard the GAA as a sectarian organisation and if you read the likes of sluggerotoole you will see people regularly say that the GAA supports terrorists, citing the fact that some clubs and grounds are named after people involved in the Troubles, and that GAA premises get used for event by organisations that were involved in the Troubles. This mistaken and undifferentiated mindset led to the murder of several GAA members, particularly towards the tail-end of the Troubles. In reality, both organisations contain people of widely differing views, and both are central to the social lives of communities. Obviously though they are different in that one is a sporting organisation and one a political-religious one. Both though are for many people involved an expression of national identity, at least in part. They are not though equivalent organisations, with the GAA quite clearly a much less divisive and much less political entity.
Part of the problem with tarring everyone involved in these massive and disparate organisations is that people end up so concentrated on the faults of “themmuns” that they miss the faults of “our ones”.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to this story from the BBC website. In a piece of symmetry that reminds us that sectarianism is a two way street, two halls were attacked last night. One was an Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall near Ballymoney, while the other was an Orange hall in Rasharkin, both in north Antrim. Both these attacks fit into a depressingly familiar pattern, one which intensifies during the summer.
Meanwhile, in Rossnowlagh in Donegal, the southern Orangemen were holding their annual parade. This parade passes off peacefully every year, and is accepted by the local residents without any problem. That this is so is often held up as an example of how the south is free of the sectarian problems that plague the north. This is largely true, although the riot in response to the Love Ulster parade in Dublin suggests that there are more people than we would like to think who don’t want expressions of unionism to be possible in the island’s capital. And such idiots showed their views if not their faces in Donegal. Road signs were painted green, white and orange, and ‘Brits out’, ‘Fuck off’ and ‘No marching’ spray-painted. This of course raises the question of what was meant by Brits out. Was it the British state, or did it mean Orangemen out of Donegal? If it did, then this would be the same logic on display in the Dublin riot, which tells unionists they are Irish whether they like it or not but don’t come down here, stay in the north. Hard to say, probably it meant the former but certainly it is ambiguous.
In short then, sectarianism continues to thrive despite all the changes in our society over the last 15 years or so. We cannot take our eye off that ball. The GFA manages sectarian conflict, it is not designed to end it. Far too many vested interest groups in our society have too much invested in the sectarian division in education, services, funding, and politics. So the loyal orders are a problematic element in our society, though not all the mindless ogres that some nationalist propaganda would have us believe. Sectarianism runs much deeper than that, and is not limited to either side. We cannot forget this, and must fight sectarianism wherever we find it. Otherwise we are cannot claim the legacy of Tone and Connolly.