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15 July 2004 Edition

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The Bible and the Crown


A loyalist bonfire at Stoneyfort bedecked with Sinn Féin election posters

A loyalist bonfire at Stoneyfort bedecked with Sinn Féin election posters

On my television screen, lines of mostly men in dark suits, bowler hats and Orange collarettes march in formation to the tunes of pseudo-military bands. Banners declare their district, their faith and their political allegiances. The mottos embroidered on their banners and flags reiterate a notion of themselves as the "chosen", the "finest" and the "true".

In the watching crowds, parents hold children aloft, kids lick ice cream and the inevitable granny sports a Union Jack hat. Here, fundamentalist Protestant notions of the elect seamlessly meet political notions of unionist supremacism. During this annual militaristic ritual, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish hostility is expressed as carnival. The Bible and the crown march to the fife and drum.

And what's more scary? The unionist paramilitary flags and paramilitary mock British Army uniforms worn by some of the bands and colour parties? Or the normalisation of such provocative parading? The ice cream treats and a day out for the family. For the BBC commentator it's all colour and spectacle; the English have their summer flower shows and Wimbledon tennis, and in the north of Ireland we have the Twelfth.

Of course, on the Eleventh Night the rituals are more blatantly brutish. The masked unionist paramilitaries, the gunfire show of strength by sectarian killers, the spectator mob, the bonfire and the ritual burning of Catholic effigies and portraits of nationalist politicians.

This year, some Belfast bonfires took to burning images of Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún, already dubbed by Ian Paisley's DUP, Barbara de Broomstick. For any thinking person, this surely must send a shiver down the spine. So now we can add to the ritualistic burning effigies of women as witches to the Celtic jersey-clad versions of Guy Fawkes, another unfortunate Catholic whose demise at the hands of a London mob set the bonfire fashion of revenge.

This year, the Eleventh fell on a Sunday and there was some discussion amongst the faithful about the significance. In a nutshell, is the burning of Catholic effigies on the Sabbath breaking the Christian work to rule? The doubters were reassured by the realisation that the bonfires would be lit after midnight and therefore not on Sunday. What a relief.

Anywhere else in the world, if a gang decided to dump a mountain of domestic waste in close proximity to housing and then set it alight in the middle of the night it would be seen as a public disgrace. Here, it passes as cultural expression (don't ask, I don't know why).

This year, we were encouraged by the BBC to believe that the fact that the Fire Service was only called out to 55 Eleventh night bonfires that were threatening to engulf nearby property made it all acceptable.

In the run up to the event, as the gathering debris despoiled more areas, there was even some discussion into what might be considered an environmentally friendly Eleventh night bonfire. Come off it, no one's that gullible.

Now, tear yourself away from those tv images of festival and sunshine and all that cheerful looking orange and imagine a gathering of White Supremicists spending the night burning effigies of other racial groups, firing off illegal weaponry and fêting racist killers as local heroes.

Then imagine them a few hours later, dressed in their Sunday best suits and marching proudly through your city, town or village in the name of religion, civic pride and culture. Well, it's not what you would call a tourist attraction. Indeed, it's not very attractive at all.

Intimidation is a curious thing, because where it works well, there isn't any call for actual violence. The Orange Order has a long history in the use of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish intimidation.

As Brian Feeney pointed out in the Sunday Business Post, Orange marchers provoked Belfast's first sectarian riot on 12 July 1813, when they tried to force themselves down Hercules Lane, a narrow street of mainly Catholic-owned shops (the people of the Falls successfully defended the area).

Indeed, since the establishment of the Orange Order, it has been associated with sectarian anti-Catholic violence and to this very day the Orange marching season is accompanied by heightened sectarian tension and increased attacks on Catholics.

Any good Orangeman will tell of days gone by when Catholics watched the parades as well as Protestants, except very few Catholics remember things quite in this way. True, some were forced to witness anti-Catholic marches by Orangemen parading through their districts, being at the time too few and too afraid to object, but that's not the same as enjoying the view.

So, when the BBC commentator described this year's Twelfth as "passing off peacefully" or relatively peacefully, apart from Ardoyne, remember an Orange parade might pass off without incident but that's nothing to do with peaceful. Peace requires embracing difference, not securing segregation through sectarian


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