Will Maloney, an American who works with young people in interface areas of Belfast, ponders an alternative approach to flashpoint confrontations and asks do we all have a role to play in making this summer a calm one?
The month of July has been called many things. To some it is the season of Lambeg drums and odes to a Dutchman named Billy. To others it is the season of protest, a time to display the rights we have by dissenting against the ones we don’t. July is a month that lives in a box of tradition and rebellion, and in a shared society both attitudes are valid. It has been called marching season and it has been called rioting season, but the most apt title for July is the season on tolerance. A tolerance we should all be deeply worried about.
And summer is fast approaching.
Once home to murder mile, the Crumlin Road has left North Belfast looking less like a community and more like a patchwork quilt of Orange and Green. Every July, at the roundabout separating Ardoyne from the Upper Shankill, the drums beat and we are reminded just how much this small stretch of land actually matters.
The Crumlin Road has become the new Garvaghy, and the faces of those involved in the events of summer tell a story that appears far from its conclusion. From the men who block the road in the afternoon to the youths that riot for nights after, the dissent is less a relic of the past and more a rite of passage. The past two summers are testaments that we are dealing with a situation that is dangerously becoming less about circumstance, but about identity.
The community upheaval from last year’s parade past Ardoyne, Mountainview, and the Dales cost the PSNI £1.1 million and solidified all expectations. The parading melees of “A” District have become infamous because they have become expected and accepted. The two hundred yard stretch from Twadell Avenue to Somerdale Park represents a contention that has developed into a rhetorical question. The inevitability of violence is as presumed as the march itself, with the past two summers being defined by roadblocks, rioting, shots fired, plastic bullets, and hooded youths on UTV. And for most that appears to be fine, just so long as they’re done by August.
The parading debates have become an unsexy thorn in the side of devolution. There is no doubt that a problem exits, but there is also no doubt that it is a non-priority for most. For years the mayhem and tribalism of summer has been accepted as inevitability, and parading has now become an allegory for a wider question. How far forward does Northern Ireland really want to move?
The Crumlin Road has become the centerpiece of “the season”. The impact this mid-year tradition has on a substantial section of our city also seems to have another tradition of being an annual political avoidance. The leadership on this issue does not come from the DUP or Sinn Fein, groups that democratically represent either side of the interface, but from residents. Talks have fallen apart in Ardoyne because of Sinn Fein involvement and on the Shankill there is no question negotiations are steered along strong paramilitary lines. The issue has effectively been polarised into an internal feud between two communities seen to many as beyond repair. The Crumlin Road, like many a road before it, has been simplified into “them” and “them”.
While the violent images of the twelfth get broadcast into millions of homes globally, the reasoning and conditions behind the dissent receives half the coverage at best. Nationalists argue that while the parade does only pass a small stretch of Ardoyne, what it represents goes much further. Alternative routes through Upper West Belfast have been established, but loyalists counter that if that parade were to be re-routed, the Protestant homes on the interface would be next. To put it simply, parading has come down to a battle for the Crumlin Road.
The groups at the forefront of finding a resolution are the North and West Belfast Parades and Cultural Forum and the Crumlin Road and Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA).CARA was established following the rioting of 2009, the first major incident in four years. CARA was soon criticized as a Sinn Fein front and an opposition formed. The second residents group, the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC), led last years sit down protest that sparked nights of unrest, but to date have not been invited to negotiations. The struggle lies in who represents Ardoyne, with Republicanism being split by between tradition and dissent. This internal struggle has without doubt affected community confidence and, according to the parades commission, no meaningful dialogue has taken place since the disturbances of 2009.
Regardless of affiliation, groups on both sides of the road do represent a desire for positive change. Unfortunately, they also represent voices with a past. It was not so long ago that the Ardoyne IRA ravaged the lives working class Protestants across the Shankill in a single moment. Equally, being within a mile radius of one fifth of all Troubles related deaths, Ardoyne has seen its share of trauma and loss. Calculate all that in with an already sensitive parading situation and as you can imagine, negotiations are delicate.
Asking two communities riddled in a violent history to come up with accommodations on their own is proving more an avoidance than a solution. Local leadership on this issue is key, but the Crumlin Road does not get solved without support from a wider audience. A solution may not be possible tomorrow, but the saga of Northern Ireland teaches us that marginalization will not be the answer.
The tolerance we show to the Crumlin Road represents a problem that goes much further than North Belfast. Each year we throw away months of time and resources spent on building communities because we are not honest with the plights of “the season”. The Crumlin Road will be one of the last tests for a society in transformation, a test for how shared we really want things to be.
But until people accept that, peace will continue to be a process.