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Violence on the march in N Ireland parades

Riots during annual marches in Belfast are a sore spot in region's peace process.

Last Modified: 06 Aug 2013 16:55
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More than 550 marches took place on July 12, and authorities had to deploy 1,000 additional police [Reuters]

Galway City, Ireland - Northern Ireland has been suffering from annual outbreaks of violence as leaders of the divided region try to establish a long-term solution to the thorny issue of parades.

Last month, on July 12, street marches held by members of the Protestant Unionist community sparked five nights of violence with police.

The parades are held each year to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant King William III defeated the ousted Catholic King James II in 1690.

After a stand-off between 5,000 marchers and the police, Unionist rioters set fire to cars and threw petrol bombs, bricks and other missiles at police, burned flags of the mainly Catholic Irish Republic and played sectarian tunes outside Catholic churches.

Many members of the Orange Order are calling for the official body regulating parades to be abolished. In the coming months Richard Haas, the former White House special envoy to Northern Ireland, will chair cross-party negotiations in a bid to find a lasting settlement to the issue.

Parades have become a sore point in the peace process, reigniting tensions on the streets of Northern Ireland each year between Protestant and Catholic communities.

It's hugely regrettable that violence has sent out a negative message to potential visitors to Northern Ireland during the tourist season and everyone who has contributed to these tensions must have a hard look at themselves.

Trevor Ringland, vice chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party

A special "Parades Commission" was created in 1998 to deal with problems caused by the marches, but many Unionists and Nationalists have grown unhappy with the restrictions it imposes and have rioted after calls by politicians for people to respect the commission's decisions.

In July, authorities restricted lodges of the Orange "loyal orders" from marching through the Ardoyne district of Belfast - an area between Catholic and Protestant communities that has been the scene of clashes in recent years.

Last year, parades were permitted to pass through the area, angering Catholics who claimed they were being subjected to sectarian taunts. They opposed the display of loyalist paramilitary emblems, heavy militarisation of the area, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the demonstration of supremacy by Protestants over Catholics.

Continuing tensions

After this year's violence, there is now anger in both communities about the failure to resolve continuing tensions.

Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, a party that gains most of its support from the Catholic and nationalist community, told Al Jazeera he was disappointed in the leadership of the Unionist community.

"Most members of the loyal orders aren't violent, but leadership is needed from the top to stop the violence of the few involved. Rioters have been attacking police and the homes of nationalists," he said. "This is nothing more than aggressive sectarianism.

"The Loyal Orders and Orangeism are a part of who we are as a nation. Irish republicans accept the right of the Orders to parade and to promote their sense of identity - but this has to be on the basis of equality and tolerance. Sectarianism and bigotry or incitement to hatred cannot be tolerated."

Councillor Colin McCusker of the Ulster Unionist Party insisted that the vast majority of Orange parades are peaceful and respectful, and expressed his dissatisfaction at the Parades Commission's decision to not allow the Unionist community to march through Ardoyne on July 12.

"At the moment, Unionists feel that they are losing at every turn, we feel like we are in the Irish Republic," McCusker said. "The Northern Ireland Office, the Irish government and the Parades Commission appear to be determined to demonise our tradition, and our heritage and culture, and portray Unionism as a problem."

Dr Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research at Queen's University Belfast and an expert on freedom of assembly, said the ideal solution to this problem is local agreement on how and when marches take place.

But an arbiter, he said, is still needed. "At the moment, the arbiter is the Parades Commission, and much of the focus is the desire among Unionists to remove the commission," he explained. "The problem is that the Parades Commission will have to be replaced by another body who will take decisions when communities fail to reach agreement."

Jarman said that at the root of the problem is the basis on which the commission makes its decisions. Although the commission makes reference to the European Convention of Human Rights, it has focused solely on public-order concerns.

Decisions need to be made more explicitly in line with the European Convention and with rulings on freedom of assembly and expression in the European Court of Human Rights, he argued. "The European Court has made more than 70 decisions on freedom of assembly cases in the past 10 years, but these are not referred to by the Parades Commission."

Issues of identity

Although Northern Ireland has been praised for emerging from a long conflict, many contentious issues remain for the Protestant and Catholic communities - not least the question of how they express their identities.

Late last year, a decision to limit the number of days the Union Jack flag could be flown over Belfast City Hall to 18 days per year sparked weeks of riots and protests among members of the Unionist community, costing the region $30m. The flag of the United Kingdom had been flown every day since 1906, but power-sharing has meant concessions around identity have had to be made by both communities.

Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has warned that continuing violence will only undermine efforts to bring jobs and investment.

And Trevor Ringland, vice chairman of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party, told Al Jazeera that one should remember how far the communities have gone along the road to peace.

"It's hugely regrettable that violence has sent out a negative message to potential visitors to Northern Ireland during the tourist season, and everyone who has contributed to these tensions must have a hard look at themselves," Ringland said. "So much has been achieved in recent years and, with positive political leadership, Northern Ireland has a bright future.

"People here live in a beautiful part of the world and we need to make sure that the achievements of the peace process are built upon."

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Al Jazeera
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