To many people around the world, the violence in Northern Ireland this weekend may seem incomprehensible. After all, it is nearly 15 years since the political conflict in the British province of Ireland was officially declared over, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
That agreement was meant to signal the peaceful end of a nearly 30-year conflict that cost the lives of more than 3,000 people, which proportionate to the population of Northern Ireland represented a huge number of deaths.
Now it appears that street violence has once again returned with scenes over the weekend from the main city Belfast looking like a war zone. Dozens of policemen were injured in riots, properties and vehicles were set ablaze, family homes were targeted by petrol bombs and hundreds of police reserves had to be flown in from England, Scotland and Wales to back up the overstretched security forces.
Adding to the bewilderment of observers is that the rioting crowds are supporters of a seemingly arcane institution called the Orange Order. Their members dress with strange-looking orange-coloured sashes, wear quaint black bowler hats and carry swords and flags to commemorate a battle that occurred more than 320 years ago between rival Protestant and Catholic English kings on Irish soil.
The commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, in which Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James, is held every year on the 12th July. The annual Orange marches are held by Protestant descendants of British settlers who invaded the North of Ireland as part of Britain’s colonial conquest and demographic engineering against the native, mainly Catholic Irish.
The truth is that every year these marches are accompanied by violence, even in recent years of so-called peace. Why? Because the Orange Order was from its inception nearly 200 years ago set up deliberately as a sectarian instrument of British colonial domination in Ireland. The Order was exclusively Protestant, pro-British and rabidly anti-Catholic. The British colonial authorities fomented the Order and its vicious sectarianism as a way of driving a wedge between the communities and in particular to subjugate the rebellious Irish.
British partition of Ireland in 1921 into a nominally independent southern state and a British-run northern province has always been a bone of contention for the northern pro-independence Irish. They have felt alienated within a British gerrymandered northern state, denied of their national rights and dominated by a false pro-British Protestant majority. For the maintenance of this injustice, successive British governments have relied on the sectarianism of the Orange Order to enforce their unlawful imperialist presence in Ireland.
Every year, the pro-British Orangemen would march through the mainly Catholic nationalist villages, towns and areas of Belfast in a demonstration of the second-class status that the native Irish were assigned by the British authorities. The Orange Order and its triumphal boorish marches were aimed at denigrating the Irish Catholics, to remind them that the British state bestowed its favor on the Protestant, pro-Unionist community. The marchers would be draped with British Union flags and the foulest insults would be chanted or sung while the processions passed by Catholic homes and churches.
One of the popular songs of hatred sung by the Orangemen is ‘The Sash’. With drums banging out the rhythm, the marchers would sing: “We’re up to our knees in Fenian [Catholic] blood.” Can you imagine the humiliation and terror that Catholic households must have felt during these grotesque carnivals of vilification conducted right outside their homes?
Here is another example of the depraved mentality of these Orange marches. In one mainly Catholic area of Belfast called the Lower Ormeau a group of five unarmed men in a sporting office was slaughtered by a British paramilitary death squad in 1992. In subsequent years when the Orange marchers would parade past the Catholic residents, the Orangemen would in unison raise their arms with five fingers pointed at the households and neighbors of the murdered men. That was meant as a sickening degradation of that community aimed to demonstrate British-state-sanctioned superiority of the Orangemen.
Typically, the 12th July marches - thousands of them all across the British territory of Northern Ireland - would proceed in the morning through the Catholic areas on the way to a designated gathering point for dozens of Orange lodges emanating from different directions. All day in the field, the Orangemen and their paramilitary supporters would listen to bloodcurdling speeches denouncing Catholics as “enemies of the British state”. Copious amounts of alcohol would be consumed to fire up the hatred.
Then in the evening, the Orange marchers would make their return procession through the same Catholic areas that they had debased earlier that day. That is when the violence would often ignite, mostly provoked by the Orange side. To compare the Orange Order to the Ku Klux Klan is a fair assessment. Can you imagine the KKK being allowed to march through an African-American district of New York, Los Angeles or Georgia? Maybe a few centuries ago such a supremacist provocation could have happened against African-Americans. But only a few years ago, in the heyday of the British Orange state of Northern Ireland with its state-sanctioned discrimination against Catholics, the Orange Order would be fully facilitated in its provocative marches by the mainly Protestant-manned police force; and all with British government tacit approval from London.
Today, such outrageous state backing of sectarian provocation and humiliation is no longer acceptable or countenanced. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 stipulated “equality” for all cultural traditions in Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the hated sectarian and death-squad-colluding Royal Ulster Constabulary, and a Parades Commission was set up to restrain the worst excesses of the Orange Order.
Nevertheless, it is still reprehensible that any Catholic community in Northern Ireland should have to endure any level of sectarian menace from the Orange Order and its paramilitary supporters. The latest violence in Northern Ireland has flared because the Parades Commission ruled that the Orangemen could not make their “traditional” return march through the Catholic North Belfast area of Ardoyne. During the decades of conflict, the community in Ardoyne saw hundreds of its people killed by British-state-sanctioned Protestant death squads. Yet, the same like-minded bigots in the Orange Order are aggrieved because their days of coat-trailing triumphalism through Catholic areas like the Ardoyne are now on the wane.
The Orange Order and its supporters make the absurd claim that such restrictions amount to “an erosion” of Pro-British Protestant culture. Of course, British media and politicians in London are wringing their hands over the latest upsurge in Orange violence.
London-appointed Northern Ireland minister Theresa Villiers said of the mayhem this weekend: “This sort of behavior does nothing to promote ‘Britishness’ or the pro-Union cause.”
Ms Villiers and her London government are woefully ignorant of history or are feigning ignorance. For it is precisely British colonial policy in Northern Ireland that instigated and fomented the sectarian psychosis of the Orange Order and its followers over many centuries and until recently. Every year, Irish people, both Catholic as well as many decent Protestants, have to endure the hate-filled legacy of British misrule in Ireland. The only viable long-term solution to Ireland’s ongoing political problem is for the British government to remove its unlawful imperialist presence in Northern Ireland, give way to long-denied Irish self-determination, and for the British misrulers to take their poisonous sectarianism with them.