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Troubles on parade: a history of march madness

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

It is not a coincidence that the current crisis that has gripped Northern Ireland over the Drumcree Orange blockade should have been sparked by a parade. Thirty years ago, before anyone outside of Portadown had heard of Drumcree, the Troubles were initiated with a march – the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon in County Tyrone. Ever since, marches and parades have often been at the center of the long-running civil upheavals that have, at times, brought Northern Ireland to the verge of civil war. They underline the fact that in Northern Ireland, where you march can be a matter of life and death.

Though the first civil rights march, in August 1968, passed off peacefully, with the marchers being blocked from entering Dungannon town square, thanks to a counter march organized by the Rev. Ian Paisley, the next attempt, in Derry, on Oct. 5, would shake the state to its foundations. The march was banned, and when it went ahead anyway, the police moved in and batoned the demonstrators, including several well-known politicians from Westminster. Caught in the glare of television lights, the violent scenes finally brought home to people throughout Britain and Ireland the nature of the Northern Ireland problem. And at the heart of that problem frequently was found a parade.

In Northern Ireland, to march in an area is to stake a territorial claim to it. Even though civil rights marchers were laying claim to civil rights, not territory, militant Protestants saw their marches as an “invasion” of loyalist ground, and responded accordingly. First, they staked out a counter-claim through counter-marches. And then, in 1969, they went further and launched all-out attacks against Nationalist areas.

On Aug. 14 that year, after the authorities had failed to ban the Apprentice Boys annual parade in Derry, it ended in violence when the marchers threw pennies into the Catholic Bogside to show their contempt for the Catholics who had gathered there to protest.

The violence turned into the Battle of the Bogside and sparked off demonstrations in Armagh and Belfast, which in turn led to widespread riots between local Catholics and Protestants. As the violence spread, it looked as if the whole of Northern Ireland might go up in flames. By Aug. 15, a worried British government had sent troops to Derry and Belfast and eight people lay dead, seven of them in Belfast. The Troubles had well and truly started. They were to last more than a quarter of a century.

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More deaths followed on June 27, 1970, when an Orange parade known as the Tour of the North, which winds its way through North Belfast, led to street disturbances. This occasion is notable for the fact that it was one of the first appearances of the newly formed Provisional IRA, whose gunmen shot dead three Protestants during the riots on the Crumlin Road.

While Orange marches continued to be the source of contention throughout the early 1970s, it was a civil rights march in Derry on Jan. 30 1972 that brought about the most deaths. Paratroopers and other soldiers, sniping from Derry walls, cut down 14 demonstrators in a episode that remains unresolved. It brought Northern Ireland once again to the brink of civil war, sent thousands of recruits flocking into the Provisional IRA, and forced the British government to abolish the Stormont parliament.

With the stepping up of the paramilitaries’ terror campaigns from 1972 onward, parades and street disturbances began to play a lesser role in fomenting violence. It was not until the IRA cease-fire of August 1994, and the development of the peace process, that discontent was channeled into street disturbances and marches once more took center stage. From 1995 onward, the annual Drumcree parade became a symbol of the struggle between Nationalists demanding that their rights be respected and Orangemen insisting that their right to march take precedence. In 1996, it led to some of the worst street violence that Northern Ireland had seen in decades. Though this year’s confrontation does not look like it will match that, it still has the potential for sparking riots elsewhere as angry Protestants vent their frustration in the traditional manner.

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