Is it a Parade, a March or a Riot-Inducing Intrusion?

Walked up the Shankill Road yesterday with economist Michael Leiden, Jr. (high school buddy visiting from London) I really wanted to see what happens in West Belfast when a parade, in this case a rather small one consisting of a dozen drum and flute bands, executes the itinerary and marches across the Peace Wall/Interfaces/Sectarian Divides. Really once we walked roughly a mile into the parade route, we decided to stop and catch up a bit. There was a police helicopter taking stock of the rainy afternoon from above. There was an amped up police presence on the street as well.

The summer season, either Marching Season or Riot Season depending on the source of information, is gearing up. The carnival atmosphere is not unique to yesterday. Public drinking. Street vendors. Children decked out in blue and red knick-knacks. As Neil Jarman explained to me Friday, there are about 2,800 marches across Northern Ireland in the summer time. The sky above the streets in any proper Protestant Unionist neighborhood across the six counties is crisscrossed with Union Jack bunting. This is true for the City of Derry’s Waterside neighborhood, the tiny town of Magherfelt and Belfast.

Stopping to get out of the rain with Leiden was a good thing in the sense that I am here to document the positive changes in the community, the bridge building. I don’t need to head home with sensational footage of angry Catholics and proud Protestants sowing the seeds of nightly skirmishes during each summer.

Most of these marches across the North are peaceful and not antagonistic. But in Belfast, with so many sutures still healing, I find it hard to imagine the need to march across the Peace Walls into Catholic neighborhoods. There are many arguments. Politically linked to the crown, all roads are the Queen’s Highways and they have every right to march where ever they want. To lose the marching tradition or concede the routes should be amended would be an admittance of defeat really, culturally and politically, in the eyes of Protestant neighborhoods. With the tenuous peace established in 98 and the call to be less sectarian, some Protestants believe their cultural identity is at stake.

This is the United Kingdom and these neighborhoods celebrate that fact in the face of, in spite of, or to communicate indifference towards the Irish nationalist agenda, a united Ireland across the island. Residents of the UK, as I have heard and can attest to with Mike accompanying me, are usually surprised at the use of flags and patriotism displayed. Residents of areas like Shankill are not Irish, and would like you to know that. And they’d like you to know where you and where they stand at all times.

Many Republicans I have talked to roll their eyes when I bring up these arguments I’ve heard. Fernando Murphey of the Interface Diaries and an Ardoyne resident says the bigger marches shut down neighborhoods for hours at a time. No way out, as he explained. He has participated in riotous protest of police collusion with the parade route coming through the neighborhood. There’s no way around it. And without the grating along these community borders, where would the young people have their craic, their fun/entertainment/action? I’ve heard on numerous occasions that Belfast is boring in these years since the Good Friday agreement, especially for youth. And if the daytime drinking on a Saturday was any indication of how both sides handle these summer celebrations, residents are well lubed for clashes by nighttime.

The parade is loud. The drums heralded the approach from blocks away. The drumming is intense. There is a sense of respect and quiet among the onlookers. There wasn’t waving or hysterics as they passed. People, if they weren’t already on the street, spilled out of the bars along the road to see the show. We saw the very end of the parade as it started on the Shankill, headed toward an Interface at the Peace Wall, and returned to the Shankill. Each drum group finished in a different area of the neighborhood. At a Church. At a hall. At a bar. Outside someone’s house.

Once again, shout out to Billy Moore, the Apprentice Boys’ General Secretary out of the City of Derry, as he goes out of his way throughout the year to communicate with Catholic Republican neighborhood associations to discuss routes, timing and necessity. He believes that is only fair.

There is a universal point to understand perhaps about marching and parades in general. The drums. Loud. I felt it carried an emotional weight to it. I think it would be intimidating if they were marching on my street and I was not celebrating. Simply due to the nature of what they are commemorating and the heartbeat of the music. And they knew I was not celebrating. And I knew they knew I knew. The wounds and scarring/healing process is fresh. But this could be said in the same light for people who don’t celebrate Gay Pride parades or marches for migrant rights or pro SB 1070 legislation in Arizona. I wonder if these aren’t the same type of celebration/commemoration-in-your-face-whether-you-like-it-or-not.

By the time it was all over, we were ready to head back to the city centre. The party was just starting. The sidewalks were standing room only outdoor watering holes. People were having great craic. I wanted to show him the big Peace Wall. We took our time checking it out. By the time we were done looking and wandering, the Interface where we entered the Shankill was closed. The two nearest exit points with the most direct route to downtown were sealed. It was 4:30 in the afternoon.

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