By “nobody,” I mean Catholic counter-demonstrators and the world’s media. Clearly, if there is going to be a 12th of July parade, somebody is going to come, because there is no shortage of upstanding citizens in the north of Ireland who live for that moment every year when they can don their bowler hats and orange sashes and march through the streets, hurling slanders at the Pope and his slavish followers around the world.
But what if the world just didn’t pay attention? What if the Catholics in the North simply ignored these proceedings, treated them with the contempt they deserve? What if the media weren’t on site to record the inevitable confrontations between the followers of King Billy and the partisans of King James?
In other words, wouldn’t the power of these marches be diminished, indeed, made irrelevant, if people of good will simply ignored them?
It is tempting indeed at this time of year to advise the Catholics of the Six Counties to stay at home during the marching season, to simply ignore the provocations on the assumption that the bigots will go away if nobody pays attention to them.
The problem, of course, is that the marching season involves more than just marching, and more than mere taunting. In recent days, loyalists have attacked the homes of Catholics in Belfast, putting into practice the words which are preached in the Orange Lodges of Northern Ireland.
It is a miracle that, as of this writing anyway, these attacks have not killed anybody. But not for lack of trying. In the most recent incident, three Catholic families were driven from their homes when an oil tank was set ablaze. Eight children were among those left homeless. In one of the incinerated homes, a play area where children sometimes slept was left in cinders.
Imagine for a moment that this sort of thing was going on in, say, the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, or in South Boston. Imagine if the homes of African-Americans, or Latino immigrants, were under attack by ruthless white people with murder in their hearts. The world’s media would be on the story in a second, and rightfully so.
In the north of Ireland, however, the loyalist rampage goes on without mention in the mainstream press in the U.S. In some ways, that is as much a commentary on the loyalists as it is the press.
Given the reputation which the loyalists “enjoy” in most U.S. newsrooms, it would be considered news if they didn’t attack the homes of defenseless Catholics during the marching season.
Ultimately, outrages like the home-burnings tell us why the Orange parades simply can’t be ignored, even though it would seem, at first glance, to be the sensible strategy. Yes, the Orangemen seem ridiculous with their hats and sashes and drums, but they actually are not ridiculous at all. Some of them, anyway, know precisely what they are doing – they are creating an atmosphere which inspires not just hatred, but violence as well.
Not long ago, although in some ways it seems like decades have passed, David Trimble was in New York to tout economic growth and investment in the North. He spoke of promoting Ulster’s folk culture as a way of luring tourists. And, as God and Ian Paisley are my witnesses, he cited the 12th of July parades as an example of folk culture which could lure tourists to the North.
What’s astonishing, of course, is that this Orangeman probably believed what he was saying. As far as he was concerned, why not? Why wouldn’t cash-happy Americans and Japanese and Aussies and other Europeans fly into Belfast to witness the marching season? After all, in a world that has been homogenized by generic popular culture, the 12th of July certainly is an authentic expression of traditional culture.
Apparently it never crossed Trimble’s mind that this particular bit of traditional culture might actually offend Catholics and indeed all people of good will.
I recall wondering if the Sons of the Confederacy or some such organization might summon up similar chutzpah to package a Jim Crow tour of the Old South. “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is where the sons of the South stood firm against the outside agitators who wanted to desegregate the University of Mississippi.” The comparison is not far-fetched, although Unionist sympathizers in Ireland and the U.K. rabidly insist otherwise.
Twenty years ago this month, I traveled to Belfast for the first time, and scheduled that visit in order to see the parades for myself. (Hey, maybe Trimble really was onto something.) I was there as a journalist, but also, frankly, as an Irish-American Catholic. Nothing I had read prepared me for the hatred I saw on those faces. And, worse, those faces were not all bejowled and wrinkled. There were young faces, many young faces, in the line of march. The only difference between the young and old seemed to be that the young faces spewed much harsher language, much more colorful epithets.
The world, and Ireland itself, has changed a great deal since 1985. And it goes without saying that Belfast, too, has changed.
But we are now in the middle of marching season, when the clocks in the Six Counties are turned back to 1690.
And that is why the rest of us — people of the 21st Century — are obliged to stand fast and call out hatred and bigotry for what it is.
Ignoring the marching season will not make it go away. That is regrettable, but it is also self-evident.