Eleanor Rigby: who has the “right authority” in Northern Ireland?
August 8, 2013 Leave a comment
In its continuous and Sisyphean effort to overcome sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the Stormont created a commission investigating parades and their importance to local cultural and social life. It appointed Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State, to not only make the decisions as to which parades – loyalist and nationalist combined – were to pass through Northern Irish streets, taking into account local sensitivities and safety concerns. Which is to say, essentially, that Theresa Villiers has been appointed to single-handedly fix the public representation of the northern Irish post-conflict divide in one fell swoop at the head of one commission. I would not want to be Theresa Villiers right now. Dominating news both local and national as a person struggling to find balance and sacrificing her personal life, people seem to forget that Villiers’ job is not an issue of public circulation. It’s an issue of deciding the future of Northern Ireland. It’s terribly unfair and frankly sad to see a woman being empowered with such a daunting and historically-loaded task, while being virtually lapidated for not being immediately successful – or worse, for even being there in the first place. A few things need to be said about Villiers and about her role.
The Parade Commission is more than necessary, no matter how many people feel threatened by its creation.
Parades are an integral part of life in Northern Ireland. They are celebrations, commemorations, anniversaries. That they are to be investigated by an executive body and perhaps halted, suspended or even cancelled is a daunting prospect for community leaders. It means effectively ridding their neighborhood of their annual or bi annual festivities, that they have held in the region for centuries. The Parade Commission is precisely attempting to find the fault line between celebration of what is essentially social identity – but also political identity. There is nothing about any individual placement in Northern Ireland within a certain community that does not hold political bearings. Because those parades are doing just that – parading, which means putting on display for all to see – those political beliefs, it is absolutely important to maintain the peace and safety not only of those parading, but also by those in the communities affected. The nature of most Northern Irish cities – a few blocks held together by zip codes and two way streets, but separated by confession and affiliation – means that the trajectory of the parade is paramount to ensuring stability.
Interface zones, however, can claim belonging to either affiliation, and refuse to be taken hostage by one or the other. And instead of staying away from interface zones, parades insist on walking down those streets and alleys – like Crumlin Road – in an act of defiance that has been characterized as a “culture war”, also known in clear language as “political provocation”. The nature of political identity in Northern Ireland is so not clearly established and left to the two domineering parties, Sinn Fein and DUP, extremes in their own rights, governing over their constituents like democracy and home rule were merely pawns to their game of legitimacy and political bullying. 15 years after the peace agreement, and 8 years after the official IRA ceasefire, this endless and violent game of chess is played during Parade season, from April to October, in a relentless display of either victimization or alleged, self-absorbed superiority. Both narratives are so ensconced in their own beliefs that the very idea of togetherness and respect of someone else’s affiliation is not a possibility; parading means existing, and essence preceded the existence, therefore parading is only the pragmatic, physical embodiment of the idea that gives community leaders a reason to get up in the morning and survey their meek kingdom safe in the fact that neither Dublin nor London will ever intervene again (… but maybe the United States will.)
But political legitimacy through democratic process must be restored. The Parade Commission and in extenso Theresa Villiers must find a way to speak louder than Orangemen flying Union Jacks over the separation wall in Ardoyne; louder than former IRA members commemorating bombers – and not their victims – in Castlederg. And it’s not about screaming or slamming their fists or burning a bigger fire on the Twelfth; it’s about both communities realizing that there is an authority superior to that of their quarrel, which is democratically elected representatives in Stormont. The Parade Commission is the supervising, overseeing institution that must be able to take up action when foreseeing conflict or, sadly, in the wake of a five-days long riot.
This is not “cultural war”. This is just another expression of conflict.
The displacement of the fight over a different platform. The language is the same, the actors are the same, and the territory is also the same, isolating even further those wishing to finally transition from a conflict that will never, ever end if we give it any legitimacy superior to that of the Home Rule it took Northern Ireland so long to achieve. It’s not about mourning the complete independence Eire was never going to grant the five counties; it’s not about desperately grasping the last fine threads linking this morsel of a tiny island to the burning ashes of an empire. But the blond lead the blind, and belonging to entities that no longer exist or are out of reach is better than not belonging at all, and be nobody’s child. And we fight again, resurrecting the ghosts of the Battle of the Boyne and fondly remembering the dull sound of exploded devices in 1973. Northern Ireland is populated by one million people, and twice as many ghosts, haunting the streets and creeping through every orange banner and Gaelic declaration.
As such, the Parade Commission is more than simply regulating pathways and costumes and allowing banners and symbols. It is about deciding whether said symbols and myths are worth destroying property and infusing inhabitants with the overpowering threat of violence as soon as July is around the corner. There is more fear in what may come that what actually takes place anymore; and this threat is ever present, to the point of stopping Belfast’s Lord Mayor from visiting his own park. This generation knows that IRA or UVF threats can still be carried once called, and remembers grimly the aftermaths. So does my generation. And, perhaps, still, the generation coming next. The Parade Commission, in its ever present role, is actually one truth commission in its own right: is it safe yet to express one’s identity in Northern Ireland? From 1998 on, we are still new. We are still hesitating, in the dark, our eyes barely open. And we can only construct our identity in opposition to someone else’s. Once we run out of stones to throw at windows on Woodvale Road, we turn against Villiers, demeaning her position, calling her back from leave after the loss of a close one, and delegitimize her work. It is important for community leaders to constantly remind the population that the authority does not reside in pawns in the Stormont, that they can easily defeat, through simply interrupting Villiers’ work or even resorting to physical violence against elected officials. Parades are a display of identity. Parades are what comes first before the legion arrives as reclaim what is historically theirs to claim: Sinn Fein in its West Belfast fortress, DUP / UVF across the river after Short Strand, UDA all over Shore Road up until Carrickfergus. None expand; but all maintain position and defeat anyone daring to believe Belfast is a homogeneous entity that ought to be governed as one. Bombs are defused and dismantled at least twice a week; they don’t explode as much. But the violence that resides in belittling the democratic process is still there.
What is striking however is how alone Theresa Villiers is.
She is not backed by staff or any other MLA in Stormont. She, herself, must find a way out among the cacophony of disastrous Orange events victimizing themselves in the face of an ever so ephemeral republican menace, or facing a stern but solid IRA / Sinn Fein silence that just won’t budge. She alone is tasked to decide how Northern Ireland will exist and perform its ancient rites in the respect of the law. It is clear that it won’t happen, and it is clear she can not do it herself. Unless Theresa Villiers is backed by community mediators that will have access to community leaders and act as an effective and efficient diplomatic liaison between, say, Ardoyne and the Stormont, the political branch of armed forces will still govern and decide of the life of Belfast inhabitants, from their bus routes to where their children attend school. Home Rule was supposed to stop the cacophony of paramilitary supervision, on one side defending the “oppressed” on the other backing up the “loyalists”. The Parade Commission governs over all of Belfast, from the Black Mountains to Bangor. It governs all of Derry, from the top of the Bogside to the Foyle riverbanks. It has authority over Portadown and Ballymena the way it does Castlederg. Home Rule and a peace agreement meant that we would agree, collectively, decide that Stormont would be where cultural issues would be discussed. That was the day Northern Ireland had the opportunity to emerge as “we” as opposed to a “us vs them”. Northern Ireland is alone. Northern Ireland needs to stop tearing at itself.
If Theresa Villiers is indeed unable to stop the IRA parade in Castlederg, despite a pretty wide-ranging call to hold the so-called festivities, maybe it is time to publicly acknowledge that the Stormont has failed to create and impose its political legitimacy upon Ulster. It has failed to raise its voice against those screaming for violence and heeding the call in the name of an oppressed ancestry. There are other ways to commemorate and remember. In the last few weeks calls for public and judicial inquiries into murders committed at the beginning of the Troubles – spanning 1973 – 1976 for now – have created the possibility of more truth and reconciliation than the simple Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which in itself was a major piece of data gathering, testimonial, witnesses hearings, with the Damocles sword of collusion heading over everyone’s head. Northern Ireland is pressing the fast forward button. If every transitional society goes through a phase of a dim, seemingly stable lull during which no conflict is exploding but no progress is made, 2013 will be the year when Ulster will rise from its judicial slumber an address the underlying issues of political identity across the board. There is a willingness, on the part of victims’ families, not to necessarily place a blame, but to at least know what happened to their loved ones, and what role they played in a war that has plagued the western European continent for centuries.
Home Rule was the promise to have a political identity that would not be color-coded, that would not have its own specific language, that would not have to be confined on either side of the Peace Line. It was supposed to be a Parliament for each and every citizen with the full weight of their civil right under domestic, european and international law. It was the idea that Northern Ireland did not have to be ruled according to fiefdoms, exist through the mere prism of violence, and express itself in a rhetoric that would be inclusive, not divisive. As I wrote before, the Shared Future Agreement has been shoved down our throats, and it was too much, too fast, too soon. The blossoming number of inquiries in the last few months, from Kingsmills to Omagh, proves that the victims of the conflict may be ready to place their future in the hands of an institution that is not local, military-funded or geographically located, but belonging to all of those in Northern Ireland. It was finally ready not to investigate murders, disappearances and blasts through vigilantism but through judicial and lawful means. It is hope. It is the maturity we may have finally acquired.
If Parades can not be anything more than commemorating a long lost history belonging to a distant past that no longer hurts anyone, then there will be no need for a Commission, for the bullying of Theresa Villiers, or for a sterile conversation constantly hitting a wall or repeating itself like a skipped disc. There will forever be a question of tit-for-tat; if Parade A is allowed, counter-Parade B shall not be outlawed, and will not tolerate any regulation of its usual path. If Parade B is asked to step down, Parade A will gloat over its supposed supremacy and therefore “cultural” authority over Parade B. There is always a parade and a counter parade for as long as Parades have been the drum-marching band rhythm of Belfast and surrounding cities; there has always been a streak of mindless and reckless sectarian violence in its forebearance and in its wake. Paraders must either submit to the Parade Commission in its sometimes awkward attempt to guide political sensitivities, or simply accept to suspend their existence until an agreement is fully reached between community leaders.
Who has the “right authority” in Northern Ireland?
If the government does not – or is “not capable” – to decide what IRA former-or-not members will feel like doing on their turf, aren’t we retreating back to the pre-ceasefire days? Wasn’t the point of a peace agreement to create an entity that would supersede territorial fatalities in order to promote inclusion and equality? Nominating someone else in lieu of Theresa Villiers is meaningless; she is not the problem, she just tried to be a part of the solution. Getting rid of the Parade Commission will simply be another detour on the sharply edged road to conflict resolution. Reconciliation is nowhere near if we can not even agree on the simple fact that no political identity is more legitimate in its existence than another, and that no political entity is within its right to inflict childish provocation over another. We talk about governance while separation walls are still erected.
Either we empower Theresa Villiers and accept to submit to her decisions, while still allowing democracy to flourish through constructive criticism and peaceful submission of new ideas, or we simply accept that Home Rule has failed, and governing Northern Ireland is just as hard as trying to make an orange tree bloom on its soil.