The scenes from the North this week are all too familiar: burning cars, barricades across streets and the litter from nights of rioting strewn across almost deserted roads. This time, however, they are loyalist barricades, the burning cars have been hijacked by loyalist protesters and the riots were fomented by loyalist gangs. However, these are only the most obvious, visible signs of the crisis brought about by the banning yet again of the Drumcree Orange Order parade from going through the nationalist Garvaghy Road area near Portadown, Co. Armagh. Behind the scenes are events rarely captured by the camera — such as the terror faced by isolated Catholic families in loyalist areas, some of whom have been forced to flee their homes.
Then beyond this trauma is one that in the long term could have devastating consequences for everyone in the North, whether Protestant or Catholic, pro-agreement or anti-agreement, loyalist or republican. That is the economic impact of the lawless behavior flashed around the world in television pictures that present a view of the "new" Northern Ireland that reminds people too much of the old.
"Many visitors are leaving Northern Ireland and many others have decided not to come here because of what is happening," lamented Bill Jeffrey of the Northern Ireland Small Business Association in a recent interview with the press. "It negates all the work that business people have done over the years."
Obviously, the mobs out protesting the right of Orangemen to walk the Garvaghy Road have no interest in business. They are made up mostly of out-of-work teenagers and schoolchildren from working-class districts who act as if they have no stake in the future of the North. But they are wrong. They have a stake, and they are sadly wasting it and by doing so undermining their own future prospects.
According to recent statistics from the Northern Ireland Office, policing the Drumcree protest in the last three years has cost £28 million pounds sterling (roughly $42 million), not including the additional costs such as insurance payments that have to be made to cover criminal damage. Compare this with the £6.2 million sterling (about $10 million) that has been earmarked for improving school buildings. That is, the state is being forced to pay out almost five times as much money to keep a handful of Orangemen from breaking the law than it has to make sure the children of the North have a decent, healthy environment in which to prepare for the future. Among those children are the sons and daughters of the protesting Orangemen.
Is this then not a criminal waste of resources — resources desperately needed to see that the potential of the young is given the best opportunity to fulfill itself?
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In another sign of the economic reality that will one day affect everyone, a U.S. trade delegation that was due to visit the North last week canceled its trip because of what it viewed as the deteriorating situation. Who will invest in a state that can be effectively closed down by a mob?
The ordinary, decent members of the Orange Order — who we must believe make up the vast majority of the brethren — must realize this is the reality. They must stand appalled at the sight of Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, convicted leader of one of the most violent loyalist groups, effectively taking over the Orange protest in Drumcree as he struts around threatening even more mayhem with his small coterie of thugs. Where will Adair lead the Protestants of Northern Ireland? What sort of future does he offer to their children? Even the idea of such a thing must send a shiver down the spines of all but the most blinkered sectarian bigot.
The truth is that the Drumcree Orangemen and the thugs that have attached themselves to their protest have nothing to offer the Protestants of the North but an obsession with the past that only proves they have no vision of the future. The future for them is, if anything, a return to the past, when they could march when and where they liked, regardless of how they offended, intimidated, or terrorized their Catholic neighbors. It is impossible to return to that time, and no matter how long the Orangemen stand on the hill of Drumcree it will not make the slightest difference.
The only viable future for the North is one based on cooperation, mutual respect and tolerance. Anything else is but a self-inflicted wound.