By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
The Parades Commission’s decision to allow Friday’s Orange Order march through Rasharkin without restriction was disgraceful. It is a classic example of the most craven cowardice by a public body whose appeasement of Orangeism in recent years has produced results the opposite of that which it was established to achieve.
In Rasharkin the Parades Commission caved in to the bully-boys and failed to protect the weak. The commission demonstrated to the people of Rasharkin and other locations in the north vulnerable to sectarian marches, that they will not respond to reasoned argument and a well-stated case.
More seriously, the decision sent a message to society in the north as a whole that the commission will not protect, in the words of the Good Friday Agreement, “the right to freedom from sectarian harassment”.
The commission let down the people of Rasharkin and the north as a whole. For what?
To allow an invasion of hundreds of loyalist bandsmen and unsavoury camp-followers from miles outside Rasharkin to swagger and stomp through the town behind 41 bands supporting a repulsive organisation that is virulently anti-Catholic in a village 75 per cent Catholic. Why does the Orange Order have such clout over the Parades Commission? The answer is simple - the threat of violence, not just from Orangemen but from the hooligans who use marches as an opportunity to cause damage and injury where they don’t live. The violence at the Whiterock parade in 2005 was an exception only because it happened in a unionist district but it showed the Parades Commission what could happen if they took the correct decision.
Let’s be clear, it’s not as if the Orange Order speaks for Protestants or unionists.
The organisation now claims 35,000 members in Ireland and we don’t even know that’s a true figure. More people turn out in Clones to watch a big football match. It is fewer than 10 per cent of the male Protestant population of the north and you have to be born a Protestant to be a member. It’s a museum exhibit nowadays, a dying animal in a zoo.
Rev Brian Kennaway, former education convenor of the Grand Lodge, wrote in July that the Orange Order is declining because of its “tarnished image in the eyes of many Protestants”.
He says it is because of the paramilitary influence and connections evident in some areas which prevent people with “high standards” from joining. “When they see paramilitary members, and in some cases leaders, walking with an Orange Lodge they are far from impressed. In some cases the paramilitary connection is not revealed until a death notice appears in the press, from both their lodge and the particular paramilitary organisation,” he says.
We know many of the bands the Parades Commission allows to march through Catholic districts are largely composed of UDA or UVF members who use bands as cover for drilling exercises.
We know many bands are named after UDA and UVF men who have killed Catholics and sometimes when the Parades Commission has decreed they shouldn’t march they do anyway but nothing happens.
It’s true that the Human Rights Act gives people the right to march and nothing in the legislation setting up the Parades Commission overrides that but the right to march is strongly circumscribed. Conditions can be imposed particularly if there is reasonable belief that the purpose of the march is to intimidate others or if it is believed there is likely to be disorder, damage or disruption. What would you conclude about the march through Rasharkin of hundreds of strangers virulently hostile to the views and beliefs of the majority of people in the town?
It’s no good saying Orange marches have gone through for years. The demographic composition of Rasharkin has changed. The world has changed.
It’s astonishing that 11 years after the Parades Commission was established the same issues are being recited, the same arguments being rehearsed and yet still the Orange and other
so-called ‘loyal’ orders are indulged in their loutish and provocative behaviour which is designed to cause maximum intimidation and disruption in places like Rasharkin.
Even more astonishing is that the craven commission requests the Orange Order to engage in dialogue with residents but rewards them when they refuse.