By Steven McCaffery
ONLY five per cent of Loyal Order parades in Northern Ireland have any restrictions placed on them – but according to a leading Orangeman these have come to crystalise everything that many loyalists and unionists feel is wrong with the political landscape.
While over the past decade Mervyn Gibson has played a central role in attempts to ‘normalise’ parading after the toxic years of the ’90s, he says that continued objections to marches can only aggravate his community.
Figures for Loyal Order marches reviewed by The Detail show that around 2,500 take place each summer, with 95% held without any restriction.
Rev Gibson, an Orange Order Grand Chaplain, says the handling of a minority of marches, especially in Belfast, has become tied to other issues among disenchanted sections of loyalism and unionism.
In an interview with The Detail, he said: “There is something about the Order that is at the heartbeat of unionism and the Protestant community.
“So an attack on it, and its culture and its parading, is seen as an attack on what people hold dear.
“They mightn’t want to go out and protest about it, or get involved in Drumcree, but they see it as an attack on the institution.”
The vast majority of marches pass off without incident each year, but he says the relatively small number of parades that are challenged have become intertwined with other grievances in loyalist areas.
“Added in with educational under-attainment, are things like the border signs [welcoming drivers to Northern Ireland] being cut down – it might sound a small thing, but people say `we can’t even say we belong to Northern Ireland now’.
“There were no flags flying on Stormont on the Covenant day – that was more a talking point than anything political.
“I think a big thing is the [Bloody Sunday] paratroopers facing being charged with murder.
“And this is against the background of people who are sharing power in this country who have committed some of the most heinous crimes, and unionists are expected – and many including myself will do that for the greater good – but then we have to accept everything else.
“The RUC continue to be demonised – with the rehiring of them, leaving aside the economic side of that – the inference was these men were tainted, they shouldn’t have come back into the system.”
He notes: “All those things add up. It takes on a momentum of its own.
“It’s how we turn that round to get confidence again, and part of that is standing-up for our culture, standing-up for our own history.”
The Parades Commission – which continues to be officially boycotted by Orangemen – records annual figures for the number of marches and the proportion that are restricted.
Figures for the last ten years show between 3,500 and 4,000 marches are held in Northern Ireland each year, with around 70% organised by the Loyal Orders or groups from the broad unionist tradition.
The second largest portion of parades is linked to charity, sport, or vintage car groups which account for 10-15%, with others organised by churches or scouting organisations, and with nationalist groups responsible for around 5% of parades.
The figures show that the unionist/loyalist community holds around 2,500 parades during the annual marching season, of which up to 150 are restricted each year – most have their route altered, but many proceed as planned with restrictions instead placed on factors such as the timing of marches or the music played.
That total, however, includes 52 marches that the Orange Order in Portadown applies for each week of the year as part of its ongoing Drumcree protest, and which are routinely rerouted.
The most detailed set of Parades Commission figures, covering 2005-11, shows that more than 15,500 loyalist/unionist parades were held in that period.
The data also confirms that only five percent faced varying types of restriction – a total which includes the weekly Drumcree parade request.
But despite such evidence, the grievance repeated time and again from loyalist quarters is that parade restrictions are proof of a concerted attack on their culture from both the state and nationalists.
Rev Gibson says the impact of parades disputes is disproportionate to the actual number of controversial marches.
But after a difficult summer when fresh tensions emerged over the behaviour of loyalist bandsmen outside St Patrick’s Catholic church on Belfast’s Donegall Street, he says Orangemen fear the emergence of new flashpoints.
“People say there is only one or two [parades disputes] left,” he says.
“My argument is totally different.
“Every parade is a potential dispute if somebody protests against it or makes it contentious.
“It only takes one person – the classic example is Donegall Street.”
Rev Gibson says the controversy surrounding September’s events to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant makes the task of securing progress all the more difficult.
The 1912 Covenant demonstrated unionist opposition to Home Rule in Ireland a century ago, and a major parade on September 29 in Belfast was the highpoint of celebrations to mark the events that led up to the founding of Northern Ireland.
But the centenary coincided with controversy ignited in July when bandsmen were filmed playing a sectarian tune outside St Patrick’s church.
Other marchers later defied Parades Commission restrictions at the venue, as well as outside St Matthew’s Catholic church in east Belfast where a bandsman was also pictured urinating on the church gates.
Despite the criticism heaped on marchers, Rev Gibson says they apologised for the controversial episodes and took steps to ease tensions in the run-up to the Covenant march.
These included talks with local clergy at St Patrick’s, but there was criticism from the SDLP and Sinn Féin at behaviour they branded sectarian, and over engagement which they said fell-short of direct dialogue with the nationalist residents’ group at nearby Carrick Hill.
For Rev Gibson the result of the summer and the Covenant demonstration from a loyalist perspective is that many in the Order believe nationalists have been churlish over the importance of the Covenant events to unionism.
Now, however, marchers have again turned their attention to the continued existence of the Parades Commission and their anger at a string of its parade rulings.
But Rev Gibson says he hopes the end of the Orange Order ban on talks will bear fruit.
“I believe the Grand Lodge made the right decision, and it will be the cornerstone on which we build the future.
“But it is not going to come quickly, particularly after the Covenant parade.
“There is a lot of hurt, the way things were done over the Covenant parade. So nobody’s going to be running out to embrace Carrick Hill residents’ group.
“The vast majority of members are still seething with what they see as being done on the Covenant parade, and opening a new front, and a new interface, and more hassle.
“So it’s not going to be done there, but it may be done in others places.”
Significantly, he also characterises any future talks involving Orangemen and residents as a listening exercise.
“It won’t be negotiation, no. If you had negotiations, you’re saying `well we want to parade and we need your permission to parade’.
“Well, that’s not the type of Northern Ireland I want to live in, where somebody has a veto over where I walk.”
But two years after the Orange Order rejected the new system for adjudicating parades that was negotiated at the Hillsborough Castle talks, he hopes the ending of the ban on meeting nationalists will eventually usher in a new era.
“I’d be very hopeful,” he said.
“I think it sets the scene for any new legislation. It gives a firm foundation for that to be built on. So I am hopeful of that.
“I think it is something that has to be addressed, the legislation, I don’t think we could face too much longer with the current legislation, certainly the current Parades Commission.
“But it has to grow through relationships and relationships don’t come overnight.
“And it takes two sides to build a relationship.”
He says Orangemen suspect that nationalists simply do not want Loyal Order parades near the areas where they live, “they hate anything Orange or British…they don’t want us about the place”.
Nationalists point to the fact that the vast majority of parades proceed unhindered and they note how the decision of the Apprentice Boys of Derry to enter talks with residents has delivered accommodation over parades.
And now that the Orange Order has lifted its ban on such discussions, there is a belief it could come under greater pressure to negotiate in 2013.
Rev Gibson says: “I think pressure doesn’t work. There is an Ulster Scots word, `thran’, I think comes into play on all sides.
“But I believe the Grand Lodge made the right decision and it will be the cornerstone on which we build the future, but unfortunately, it might take a bit longer because of what happened at the Covenant.”
In the final report in this series on marching disputes, The Detail will look at where the state fits in to the parades issue: the growing financial and political pressures on government for an over-arching solution to the annual stand-off over parades, and what the future might bring.