It’s now over a week since the annual Apprentice Boys parade in Derry.
In this newspaper Jim Allister has written trenchantly about the potential of a slippery slope when the police clamping down on symbols which are deemed “provocative” is normalised. Any symbols celebrating Britishness could thus be deemed capable of inciting a breach of the peace in nationalist majority areas in Northern Ireland, and therefore open to being removed by the police. Wallace Thompson on the other hand has stressed the Protestant and apolitical nature of Loyal Orders’ parades, and the Protestant duty to be “dignified and respectful”.
Many other angles could be taken in relation to this story, but for me what was most frightening about that Saturday was the realisation that - despite the much-lauded success of the “Derry model” - we were just inches away on that day from a complete breakdown of this model. In fact we may well still be – see Martina Anderson’s alarming comment that the incident “doesn’t help us to maintain that spirit of generosity in the city”.
Even Garvan O’Doherty – who has played a crucial role in getting nationalist Derry to accept the annual parade – has issued the surely unhelpful comment that he “wouldn’t have them (the Clyde Valley Flute Band) about the city anymore”.
Just imagine how the negotiations are going to go for next year’s parade now.
What does the potential end of the “Derry model” mean? Let’s sit back and imagine.
It would mean the permanent calcification of the two political traditions in Northern Ireland into their respective ethno-religious heartlands.
You would be able to be Irish in Derry but not in Bangor, British in Larne but not in Newry. Some will argue that this was what the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was all about – a pragmatic acceptance of political and cultural apartheid, the difference from apartheid being that both sides would be treated equally, “rigorously” so.
It’s more than ironic in this context that the reaction of staunch loyalist bands such as the Cloughfern Young Conquerors to the conciliatory statement issued through the governor of the Apprentice Boys, Graeme Stenhouse, last week, has been to say that they won’t be participating in future ABOD parades in Derry. Don’t loyalists believe in the right to march anymore?
That redemptive moment when I saw loyalist marching bands taking part in Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann a few years back will be a memory from another era. The concept of shared space will be gone.
This retreat works both ways. So when Martina Anderson has the temerity to go to an arts event in a loyalist area, her visit is slammed as a “cheap publicity stunt” with politicians from the DUP, UUP and PUP claiming that the local community has been “treated disrespectfully” with “no attempt to contact community representatives”. Apparently she needs to “apologise” for her actions. Now I hold no brief for what Martina stands for, but she is an elected Member of the European Parliament for the single constituency of the entire territory of Northern Ireland.
It’s notable that the therapeutic victim centred language of “hurt” and “offence” is now being bandied about by both loyalists and republicans as they seek to cleanse their areas of the baleful influence of “themmuns”.
Politically this cleansing process means that the narratives of republicanism and unionism are never going to be able to transcend their ethnic roots in Northern Ireland. But that does not mean that they are equal losers.
For this process guarantees that there won’t be an agreed Northern Ireland at peace with itself and its different traditions. Think about that. That’s a much bigger threat to the classical unionist project than to republicanism. Republicans just need a Northern Ireland that doesn’t work.
l Neil McCarthy is a teacher and writer based in Dublin and London