MARCHING! Backwards?

Rights NI is delighted to welcome this guest post from Christopher Stanley. Christopher Stanley is Legal Officer with Rights Watch (UK) and can be reached at 

2013 in Northern Ireland should have been a celebration of the 15 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the official end of the conflict and the transition toward a post-conflict society founded on a respect for human rights.  It is not working out like that.  In fact, it may be a fair assessment that peace in Northern Ireland at this time is not secure and that instead of moving forward, Northern Ireland is moving backward.  This is the analysis of those in Washington who have followed recent events in Northern Ireland.

For example, it has now been reported that Vice-President Joe Biden now has a specific brief to monitor the peace process in Northern Ireland.  Barbara Stephenson, who is now Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy in London and a former US Consul General in Belfast, said widespread violence over flying the Union flag caused Washington to fear the process “wasn’t as solid as we hoped” and that “a couple of more shocks and we could be in trouble.” (See:

During the St Patrick’s Day celebration in 2012, The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the US Helsinki Commission), took evidence from victims, NGOs and academics from Northern Ireland on the theme of “The Pre-Requisites For Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland”.  Our responses ranged from the implementation of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and reforms of the investigative mechanisms available to examine what have become known as the Legacy Cases, those deaths which occurred as a result of the conflict.  If the Helsinki Commission were to ask for suggestions for a theme for a similar meeting in Washington in the Fall of 2013 it would now be a cry for political leadership for Northern Ireland to stem the slide away from peace and toward resurgent sectarian division and violent political dissent, both Nationalist and Loyalist.

Indicative of this crisis of the peace in Northern Ireland is The Marching Season, where rights are tested in a toxic political, religious and cultural matrix.   In Northern Ireland 12 July (“The Twelfth”),  marks the start of The Marching Season. This ‘celebrates’ the Glorious Revolution (1688) and victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). On and around The Twelfth, large parades are held by the Orange Order and Ulster Loyalist marching bands, streets are bedecked with British Union flags and bunting, and large bonfires are lit. It is a sombre festival of colonial domination and sovereign right performed by marching established routes which have become scenes of contest between both the Protestant Loyalists, the Catholic Nationalist and the authority of the state wearing a policeman’s hat but holding a riot shield and armed with Taser.  The season has always been controversial but this year there is added danger.

This year the  forces of the state had had pre-match marching season practice as the disaffected Loyalists of North and East Belfast demonstrated when a political decision was taken that the Union Flag would not regularly flown above the City Hall in Belfast; these demonstrations have occurred regularly since this decision was taken on 3rd December 2012.  The policing of the flag protests has been controversial because it suggested heavy handed tactics which have engaged and enraged old animosities between the state and the people.  The processing of protestors through the courts has also been marked by controversy in terms of the length of remand and the conditions of bail.

In addition, the police in Northern Ireland also had practice in potential widespread anti-capitalist demonstrations when the G8 leaders landed up in a remote golf resort near the small market town of Enniskillen for their annual summit.  The widespread fear of dissident Republican violence seems to have deterred the brave hearts of anti-capitalism (which  is probably why the G8 chose Northern Ireland).  I have commented on the costs and significance of this policing and security operation elsewhere (see:  What was significant about the G8 Summit policing and security operation was the range of residual planning now in place to deal with long-term civil unrest in Northern Ireland, including the use of drones as surveillance mechanisms. The Marching Season commencing on The Twelfth therefore marched off in the trail of flags and with a policing and criminal justice system already geared up for trouble.

The Marching Season this year in Northern Ireland, is therefore and as ever if not more heightened with politics and emotions about the investment of rites and rights in territory: fields of conflict. So far during this Marching Season the primary symbols of the investment in these emotions and this politics has been marked around the interface walls (real and symbolic) in Belfast and elsewhere in Antrim and Armagh and have been a controversial huge bonfire near Catholic homes in North Belfast (see: and the discovery of Catholic icons on a bonfire in Ardoyne (see:

The Parades Commission of Northern Ireland, a creature of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, has been busy with permissions to parade; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland claims no power to interfere with the decisions of the Parades Commission despite its hybrid legal status and the controversial nature of some of its decisions and the fact that she maintains the power to appoint the Commissioners.  This determination by Westminster not to interfere with devolved Stormont matters could be welcomed in this regard but there is a demand for political will at both levels of government to march through the old rivalries which continue to score the face of Northern Ireland and which now troubles the administration in the USA.

The governance of marching – and the insistence of some in the Republican community to hold a rally in Belfast to mark the anniversary of the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland in 1971 (see: – will not assist the conundrums faced by the Parades Commission this summer.  It status has not been assisted by the stance of the Secretary of State.  For example, the Secretary of State she has been approached by victims’ groups in West Tyrone opposed to a republican parade in Castlederg.  Again, the Secretary of State has been reluctant to interfere (See: ; she has also stated that she does not think it is feasible to ban all contentious parades for six months.  It is unclear how contentious is defined in this decision (See:  Despite her reluctance, the Secretary of State is being dragged into the marching dispute.

The governance of marching is connected with the freedoms of association and expression.  The near intractability of Northern Ireland’s political, cultural, religious divisions remains too near to the surface for political face turning, whether the face paint be Orange or Green.

“But as all of you know all too well, for all the strides that you’ve made, there’s still much work to do. There are still people who haven’t reaped the rewards of peace. There are those who aren’t convinced that the effort is worth it. There are still wounds that haven’t healed and communities where tensions and mistrust hangs in the air. There are walls that still stand; there are still many miles to go. From the start, no one was naïve enough to believe that peace would be anything but a long journey. Yeats once wrote ‘Peace comes dropping slow.’  But that doesn’t mean our efforts to forge a real and lasting peace should come dropping slow. This work is as urgent now as it has ever been, because there’s more to lose now than there has ever been.”

A visitor to Northern Ireland this year was wise in the words he delivered to the youth at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast on the 17 June, and the march backwards in Northern Ireland continues.  That visitor was President Barack Obama.  As Barbara Stephenson  commented  “So, I who had for at least ten years been there saying there’s only one direction of travel possible for Northern Ireland and that’s away from a troubled past and toward a better future, I had to say `you know if you poked me at that right now, I don’t think I could say that with the same kind of conviction. I think that this is in trouble and that it’s like a bicycle, if it doesn’t keep moving forward, it may be falling over’.” (See:  Or being marched over.

This new urgency by the Obama administration which is starting to locate Northern Ireland nearer its central international political agenda is heartening in terms of keeping the lonely bicycle of peace from hurtling toward the stamping brogue marching into the past.  The arrival of US diplomat Richard Haas to conduct talks on the progress of the peace is also a part of this welcomed strategy.  However,  these US lead these initiatives need both grassroots support, the endorsement of civil society and political will to succeed, which means the will of Westminster, Dublin and Stormont.