Will we ever get away from belligerent marches?

The remains of the late Peggy O'Hara pictured leaving her Templegrove home on Saturday morning. DER2815MC090
The remains of the late Peggy O'Hara pictured leaving her Templegrove home on Saturday morning. DER2815MC090

Last week I was critical of Orange parades. Even before that piece had appeared in the paper, the more aggressive loyalist bands at ‘The Twelfth’ had been trumped by a paramilitary march at Peggy O’Hara’s funeral.

Last week I was critical of Orange parades. Even before that piece had appeared in the paper, the more aggressive loyalist bands at ‘The Twelfth’ had been trumped by a paramilitary march at Peggy O’Hara’s funeral.

That’s what this place is like. You haven’t time to complain about one militaristic march before another one comes along. It’s a competition where both sides try to stage a more belligerent show than the other.

It was like watching archive film somebody had discovered lying around. The loyalist colour parties strutting along carrying flags ahead of vicious bands were in technicolour whereas the paramilitary pageantry in Derry had a black and white look. It wasn’t actually filmed in black and white; it just had that retro ‘feel’ to it. Around 50 young men and women stomping along in dark clothing except for white belts with black berets, dark glasses and masks, created a menacing effect. Many looked too young to have themselves experienced the ‘war’. Mrs O’Hara’s granddaughter Edel Kelly said it was what her grandmother wanted.

It kicked off the predictable argy-bargy on phone-in programmes with all the usual ‘what aboutery,’ allegations and counter-allegations stirred up by Gregory Campbell MLA, MP, versus Councillor Gary Donnelly. Come to think of it, that was like another old movie. Meanwhile, PSNI statements gave the impression they weren’t sure what line to take. Councillor Donnelly cited Patrick (or Pádraig) Pearse’s famous August 1915 oration at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, delivered exactly 100 years ago this Saturday. That was the one where Pearse ended his speech with the climactic words, “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” O’Donovan Rossa (1831 – 1915) was the Fenian leader, who from his exile in New York, had organised the first Irish Republican bombing campaign in Britain.

In his powerful rhetoric, Pearse turned the religious concept of atoning sacrifice into a metaphor for the freedom of the Irish nation. “Life springs from death,” he said. The physical force tradition in Irish separatism had been elevated into an Article of Faith; an end in itself. Over the centuries the revolutionary tradition has co-existed alongside the peaceful tradition. It’s well beyond me to adjudicate between these, at times, competing traditions. Meanwhile, over on the unionist side a search has long been going on for their own heroes. There, the idea of blood sacrifice plays its part too. An atavistic respect for British military traditions mingles with respect for their own military traditions when the British ones don’t suit. After all, Carson’s Ulster Volunteers were the original Irish rebels of the 20th century.

At times, unionist admiration for military traditions almost begins to look like ancestor worship if not a fetish. How else could you explain the militaristic aspects of today’s marches to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne all of 325 years ago? So, we’ve two competing militaristic narratives. The physical force tradition is an unshakeable Article of Faith for some on both sides. Keeping the struggle going matters more than any achievable outcome. Will we ever get away from the swagger to reinforce each tribe in solidarity with its own preferred narrative?

Probably not, but it would be a step in the right direction if we could at least begin to question the glorification of past conflicts.