Ok, let’s get one thing quite clear: the riots on the Woodvale Road and elsewhere are nothing to do with the ‘voices of the unheard’.
When piles of bricks, sticks, bottles (some with petrol in them), golf balls, fireworks and ball-bearings are close to hand then it’s obvious that people have prepared for the riot. It’s obvious, too, that they want a riot. They attack the police because they want to attack the police. They destroy, deface and injure because they have chosen to do so. And yet, as Martin Luther King noted, ‘the limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility’.
In the minds of many of those who riot – and it’s a view encouraged by some who haven’t the political or moral courage to tell them otherwise – is the notion that violence pays. Well, in most cases it doesn’t pay. Sinn Fein is in government because it has almost as many votes as the DUP. Loyalists aren’t in government (indeed, they don’t even have a party to represent them in the Assembly or most councils) because they don’t have enough votes. I suspect that most of those who riot don’t even vote.
As I have written on so many occasions, ‘if those in the loyalist/unionist/Protestant communities who feel left behind and unrepresented want to be included and listened to then they must provide their own voices and vehicles. No one else will do it for them’. Back in January I warned that the Unionist Forum was just another way to sideline and silence them and advised that they set themselves to the task of disconnecting from the loyalist paramilitaries (who will always put their own careers and interests first) and build a new political/electoral vehicle with its own distinct socio/economic agenda.
There are no circumstances – none whatsoever – in which the sight of unionists, loyalists or Orangemen (and yes, I saw the footage on television and the photographs in the newspapers) laying into the police can ever be construed as a positive for unionism. The police are merely there to uphold the law, a law they have no responsibility for making. So it is politically stupid and morally wrong for anyone to vent their anger on them. And it is dangerously irresponsible for the ‘leaders’ of mainstream unionism and the Orange Order to give credence to the view that the violence was an ‘almost inevitable’ consequence of a decision taken by the Parades Commission.
The Parades Commission exists because the Executive parties and the Orange Order couldn’t agree an alternative back in 2010. There is no other body in Northern Ireland which has the authority to make determinations on parades – a reality accepted by the Orange Order when it submits the necessary paperwork to the commission. Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of the commission (and I’ve always been particularly concerned that it lacks a voice which has real influence or commands respect within the unionist/Orange community): but until it is replaced, its rulings – however illogical and bizarre they may appear – should be obeyed.
I suppose my primary difficulty with the commission is that it buys into the premise that roads, albeit only at certain times of the year and for short periods, should be designated as ‘us and them’ territory. I live in east Belfast which is, as most people will know, predominantly unionist. But the roads are just roads. They are public roads and should be available to the public and, on occasion, to organisations which want to parade or march. I’m not arguing for the unfettered right of organisations to parade into housing estates and go out of their way to give offence: but I am arguing for the right of lawful organisations (even those of which I disapprove) to be able to use public highways to get from A to B and to celebrate what matters to them.
It is, of course, a two-way process. If an Orange lodge and accompanying band are passing an area which they know to be Catholic and/or republican then try playing Abba rather than ‘Holy Mary I am dying’. Also, don’t assume that the Protestant and/or unionist areas want a loud thumping diet of The Sash. My father, a senior Orangeman from Armagh always advised lodge members, ‘be proud, not triumphant. Be tall, not intolerant’.
Writing in the News Letter on June 12, Connall Parr noted, ‘it was always naïve for unionists to think their culture would be respected post 1998 – whatever inconsistent rhetoric Gerry Adams feeds to the conference faithful – and they should not be surprised that Sinn Fein wants to demean their sensibilities. There is a viciousness in today’s cultural taunting which is calculated to inflict maximum offence’.
Parr is right, so it disturbs me that the leadership of unionism and Orangeism doesn’t appear to have any considered, thought-through responses to Sinn Fein’s cultural war. All we do (and I say ‘we’ deliberately) is go out of our way to blame everyone else: blame the PSNI, or the Parades Commission, or Sinn Fein, or the media, or the NIO or even the Easter Bunny! Blame anybody and everybody except ourselves. Even the speeches from Orange platforms saw Orangemen condemning the DUP over the Maze proposals, even though quite a few DUP MLAs, including at least one Executive minister, are in the Order. It beggars belief!
So instead of blaming others (and venting pointless anger in tomorrow’s Assembly recall) the unionist parties and Loyal Orders need to sit down and agree possible alternatives to all the things they don’t like. It’s called leadership!