Northern Ireland – Sharing the State Means Sharing Responsibility

Castlederg. Photo: Kenneth Allen.

Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, has called on the organisers of a Republican commemoration to call off their plans. A demonstration is planned for this Sunday in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, commemorating the deaths of IRA members killed during the Troubles, including two members killed when a bomb they had planned to plant in Castlederg exploded. Unionists have called the planned event a glorification of terrorism, while DUP leader Peter Robinson has gone on record to denounce the commemoration as ‘insensitive’ and ‘inappropriate’. An event is held by Republicans in Tyrone every year and this year marks the 40th anniversary of the deaths of the would be bombers.

In one sense its easy to understand why Robinson and Villiers and ordinary members of the Unionist community are so against this. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and it must be particularly galling to see people who murdered and killed Protestants and Unionists commemorated and held aloft as heroes, and vice versa. Interestingly, Sinn Féin has confirmed that the route will deliberately avoid the most contentious areas of the town, in recognition that Northern Ireland is a space to be shared. However, the fact that the parade will be held in the target town doesn’t make sense, while it’s simply sad to see that one of the biggest stains on Northern Irish history continues to be celebrated and commemorated.

But on the other hand, it’s also a little hard to understand the reaction from certain Unionist sectors, and to see why Republicans should listen to them. ‘Triumphalist’ is an excellent word to use when describing the Orange Order marches. ‘Threatening.’ ‘A reminder of a an event hundreds of years ago which set in train a series of events leading to Protestant domination and Catholic oppression.’ Too much? Maybe for some. Speaking on ITV about the Orange Order protests last month, following the decision not to let the marchers go back down through Ardoyne for a second time in one day (an Irish nationalist and mainly Catholic section of the city, remember), Robinson said that those protesters were completely justified, his clear allowance and understanding of this sectarian event at odds with his pontification on the need for a shared society.

“That was the reason that my colleagues and I put down a motion for the recall of the assembly, so there can be an outlet for the anger and also to give an opportunity to those from the nationalist republican tradition to put out very clearly what is their intention when they talk about a shared society,” he said at the time. It’s all very well talking about a shared society, but one does wonder if a shared society in some Unionist minds north of the border really means a return to the Protestant-dominated six counties. Few won’t have heard of the nights of rioting by Orange Order supporters up in Belfast when they weren’t allowed to completely get their way. In fairness, Robinson had made his stance clear that his support was only for non-violent protest, but in the end that didn’t do much good.

The commemoration in Castlederg should indeed be called off. While the organisers may feel justified in having long memories while Unionists demonstrate similar abilities, the fact is the last thing Northern Ireland needs is public homages to relics of the past. It’s an opportunity for Sinn Féin to show that its criticisms of pointlessly hate-provoking parades aren’t just words, and that they really do want to build a better future for the North. It’s a chance to be the better person, to rise above the mire. But the fact is, Republicans will find it hard to swallow criticism from the representatives of Unionism and Loyalism on the subject of a shared space when the latter do little more than pay lip service to the idea – recall the utter madness which sprang up from the decision to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom and only fly the flag on special occasions. Or the continued violence which consistently accompanies the sectarian parades every July, when anti-Catholicism is too often seen as an integral part of the day’s events by too many. Moving forward isn’t as easily done if you’re constantly looking behind you to see where you’ve come from. A lesson Peter Robinson, the Orange Order and the province’s more vocal Unionists could badly do with learning before they attempt to teach it to others.

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