By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Many people rash enough to venture out without checking a list of Orange marches might find themselves re-routed or delayed but it’s all much reduced and predictable now compared to a generation ago.
Then it would have been, ‘Any people rash enough to venture out...’. Orangemen and the RUC simply closed the north down: streets, shops, buses, businesses, the lot. Belfast became a ghost town as did most other towns. Not now. Most of the north remains unaffected.
It’s a sign of ownership changing hands. The Orange ‘demonstrations’, as they’re pleased to call them, were in essence a demonstration of ownership of the north. Orangemen demonstrated that they could march anywhere they wanted and behave any way they wanted.
The law was their law. The police were their police. No longer. The north is not a unionist state.
It has been a long slow painful process and of course it’s not completed yet.
However Orangemen can no longer march where they want or where they aren’t wanted. Slowly, slowly provocative marches were restricted, then stopped by law, law which of course many Orangemen don’t accept. At what a cost. It’s twenty years since the vast riots at Garvaghy Road. Still, twenty-five years before that the RUC alongside UDA thugs forced marches along Obins Street, known as the Tunnel. It took until 1985 to stop that.
All through those years Orangeism has been shrivelling. It used to be unionist newspapers that dutifully parroted a press release which began, ‘Today 100,000 Orangemen marched at x number of venues.’ That was never true but now there aren’t 30,000 in the Orange Order. The order itself has changed markedly from the days when members of the aristocracy like the Earl of Erne were Imperial Grand Wizards and all unionist MPs were members. Now the aristocracy wouldn’t be caught dead at an Orange march and the leaders are old codgers. There’s no percentage in joining. Not with Fair Employment legislation.
Today’s marches are the last relic in these islands of what used to be a fortnight’s industrial holiday when for convenience all factories and works closed for the same period and all the workers were free to go to the seaside. Now heavy industry has closed, in most places forever, and people go on holiday at different times but not by train to Bangor or Portrush, rather by plane to Mallorca or Tenerife. They watch the diminishing remains of Orange marches on satellite TV from their holiday apartment if at all.
No one official from the unionist community will have anything to do with the reckless, lawless bonfires which like the marches are slowly being brought under control and amenable to the law as they become fewer in number. Tons of toxic tyres are now a rarity. No one can defend their presence.
Typically unionist politicians have deserted the communities who must endure the hazard of bonfires polluting the district and organised in most cases by people close to loyalist paramilitaries.
However unionist politicians also remain silent and don’t protest as the bonfires reduce in size and number, the few giant ones remarkable not just for their size but their rarity. Unwittingly for the bonfire builders what they demonstrate is how little of the north unionists now own and how powerless they are to behave lawlessly as in the past.
The same is true of the flags and bunting unionists string up to show where they own. It used to be a large number of towns had official arches with sockets in the footpath to receive brackets for the arches. Some still do, but how many? Now the flags and bunting are erected not officially but by loyalists thumbing their noses at the police who appease them.
It’s all rather like Matthew Arnold’s 1851 poem Dover Beach where he laments the tide of religion going out like the sea:
But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar; Retreating, to the breath; Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear; And naked shingles of the world.
Even so, it doesn’t mean unionists are ready to share their diminished ownership on equal terms.