Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Orange Parades: History Repeating Itself?

The scenes in Belfast over the Twelfth have been shocking. Members of the Orange Order, bands, and hangers-on attacking the PSNI with a variety of weapons and ammunition, due to the blocking of a parade. After the positive coverage of Northern Ireland during the G8 (only a month ago), the normal headlines have returned, with footage beamed across the world of people waving union flags attacking Her Majesty's police service.

Orange leaders have been describing the blocking of parades as the latest installment in a 'culture war', citing the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall as another field of engagement. In actual fact, though, problems with parades are not a new thing. Even further back than the Lower Ormeau or the Garvaghy Road / Drumcree disputes, the student of Irish history discovers that things were even worse about 160 years ago. So bad, in fact, that party processions, both unionist and nationalist, were banned for over seventeen years. The incident that brought the ban? The battle of Dolly's Brae.

© Copyright Kevin O'Kane and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It was the Twelfth of July 1849. The Orangemen of Rathfriland had marched to Lord Roden's Park - what is now Tollymore Forest Park, at Bryansford. Appeals had been made for the Orangemen to return by the new road, that is, the one known as the Horse Shoe Bend on the A50. The Orangemen, though, had gone that way the year before and 'been humiliated over the next year by songs mocking their cowardice.' [1)

Waiting for them at Dolly's Brae were 'masses of armed Ribbonmen... crowded to prevent them.' [2] Between the Ribbonmen and the Orangemen were troops and police, to keep the peace and ensure the march passed through. Everything almost worked out. 'When they were twenty yards of so beyond the danger zone, someone threw a squib and all hell broke loose.' [3] Firing began on both sides, the police moved to scatter the Ribbonmen from the hill, and in the turmoil, many were killed. 'At least thirty Ribbonmen were killed and Orange stragglers burned some Catholic houses and attacked one of the owners.' [4]

The following year, 'Sir William Meredith, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, brought in a bill outlawing Party Processions.' [5] Parades were completely banned, with the order going 'into decline.' [6] Ten years later, 'following a serious riot at Derrymacash, near Lurgan, County Armagh, a Party Emblems Act was passed. The displaying of party flags, banners or emblems from buildings (or other public places) was prohibited; so, too, was the ceremonial discharge of cannon or firearms. Even the playing of traditional party tunes in public was outlawed. Orange leaders denounced both Acts as tyrannical, unconstitutional and an infringement of British liberties, yet they insisted that all brethren should obey them.' [7]

It seems like an early prototype of the current Parades Commission, and even more of a war on Orange culture than we are currently experiencing. The danger, though, in such times of 'persecution' is that a new hero will emerge, who will stand up and be counted. With the union flag dispute, it appeared to be Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer. With the parades dispute now, who can tell? In the 1860s, the Orange hero was William Johnston of Ballykilbeg in County Down.

'As the events of 12 July 1867 illustrate, the Orange Order remained capable of putting large crowds on the streets, when its cause demanded it. That day, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg, who was opposed to legal curbs on Orange marches, led 100 Orange lodges, with 40,000 people as participants or spectators, in procession from Newtownards to Bangor.' [8] Johnston and a few others were prosecuted, but 'so intent was Johnston on making his mark that he refused to pay the bail money that would have secured his release. When he emerged from Downpatrick jail a month later, thousands of supporters had gathered at the gates, singing Orange songs as loyalist bands played their party tunes.' [9] Such was the groundswell of support for Johnston that he was soon after elected to Westminster and successfully brought about the repeal of the Party Processions Act in 1872.

Reading the accounts of the events of the 1860s, there are some striking resonances with today. An embattled and embittered Orange order under siege. Violence surrounding some parades, even while the vast majority pass off peacefully. Government legislation seeking to pursue peace but making the situation potentially worse. Heroes and martyrs waiting in the wings to rise to prominence. An uneasy political situation.

Rathfriland District still remember Dolly's Brae - the name of that road emblazoned on their District Bannerette like a military battle honour. The rest of us need to remember it as well, and all that followed, to seek a peaceful resolution before it's too late and history repeats itself.

[1) Ruth Dudley-Edwards, The Faithful Tribe, p. 250.
[2] Mervyn Jess, The Orange Order, p. 34.
[3] Kevin Haddick-Flynn, Orangeism: The Making of a Tradition, p. 277.
[4] Dudley Edwards, p. 251.
[5] Haddick-Flynn, p. 279.
[6] Haddick-Flynn, p. 280.
[7] Haddick-Flynn, p. 281.
[8] Chris Ryder & Vincent Kearney, Drumcree, p. 12.
[9] Jess, p. 36.

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