As ever, and as ever, sadly, the July 12 climax of the North’s marching season rekindles an air of threat. It is an annual reminder that the age-old antagonisms survive barely hidden by the veneer covering a society still to fully realise the opportunities offered 15 years ago by the Belfast Peace Agreement.
PSNI chief Matt Baggott has said that 43 of the 550 parades planned today are considered sensitive. The recent Parades’ Commission ruling banning Orangemen from marching past an Ardoyne flashpoint in Belfast may change that ratio negatively. Simmering resentment and barely concealed violence over rules limiting the use of the Union Jack flag on public buildings have exacerbated tensions. They have also provided another valid, re-energising soapbox for extremists of all hues to vent their tribal hubris and intransigence.
The prospect of international TV crews returning to Belfast to confirm that the city is on fire again has a particular resonance in a city that still needs 99 “peace” barriers almost 20 years after the paramilitary ceasefires announced in 1994. That a third of these structures were built since then points to the deep, almost Sisyphean task of reaching an accommodation where all communities can live and work together in a way that is considered normal in any civilised, progressive society. However, it must mark some sort of progress that Mr Baggott can predict that more than 90% of today’s parades will pass peacefully.
It is more than unfortunate too that the tension generated every July is fed by dangerous and criminal fantasies of those who imagine themselves dissident republicans rather than deviant anti-democrats. A march planned for August 9, where up to 5,000 dissidents are expected in Belfast will hardly contribute to harmony or progress. As the 32-county vote endorsing the Peace Agreement underlined, these protests and these organisations have no democratic legitimacy whatsoever.
Lurking in the background to all of these conflicts, all of these hatreds is the timeless question — what can we do to overcome the legacy, the hatred and divisions of another time? What can we do to created an environment of respect, tolerance, an environment where one community does not want to dominate the other either through ancient assumptions or newfound powers?
It is now accepted that generations of Irish people were taught history in a particular way, that nationalism and Catholicism were presented as the heroes in a narrative defined by our status as a colony. This has had consequences, one of which was a pretty narrow definition of the past and a susceptibility to myth and romanticism. It could hardly be otherwise, but this inculcation posing as education has played a significant role in this island’s self-destructive tribalism.
Now that we have the benefit of decades-long hindsight, surely we recognise the absolute need to understand our past as it really was so we can build the future we really want? In that context proposals that might marginalise the teaching of history and geography in our schools must be viewed with alarm.