Street theatre at Drumcree

Far from signalling a return to the Troubles, the annual 'Battle of Drumcree' is a pantomime conflict.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘It’s Dumbcree’ screamed a headline in the UK Mirror on 8 July 2002 (1), as newspapers accused Orange Order supporters who clashed with police at Drumcree over the weekend of ‘frogmarching’ Northern Ireland ‘back to its past’. ‘This is just how the Troubles started’, claimed one local resident.

The reaction to the annual violence at Drumcree is now as predictable as the violence itself. Since 1995, Orange marchers have clashed with police over their ‘right to march’ down the Irish nationalist Garvaghy Road in the Portadown area of Northern Ireland. And every year, politicians and media commentators tell us that Northern Ireland is on the ‘edge of the abyss’, with its ‘past coming back to haunt it’. This year, during sectarian riots in the run-up to Drumcree, one newspaper said ‘it’s shades of 1969 all over again’ (2).

Yet just days later, the violence has petered out. Most of the protesters have gone home, the Orange Order has lodged complaints with the Parades Commission, and talk of a descent into violent conflict is yesterday’s news. Why do so many get it wrong with their dire predictions of a return to the past?

Many seem to hold the view that not much has changed in Northern Ireland. They talk of a ‘fragile peace’ which could be shattered at any moment by burgeoning tensions between nationalists and Unionists. Nationalists claim that their treatment at the hands of the Orange Order and the police echoes the anti-Catholic violence during the civil rights protests of the late 1960s – while much of the British media talk up a resurgence of ‘tribal hatreds’ over Drumcree, as if people in Northern Ireland are mystically driven by forces from history.

In fact, the annual scuffles at Drumcree show just how much Northern Ireland’s political landscape has shifted during 10 years of peace process. Far from signalling a return to the ‘old conflict’, Drumcree captures the exhaustion of both nationalism and Unionism – and the dearth of political principle at the heart of the peace process.

Consider the way in which Drumcree is often compared to 1969. On the surface, there are similarities between the marching season of 1969 and Drumcree 2002. Then, as now, provocative Orange parades inflamed anger within Catholic communities, with many Catholics demanding an end to Orange marches in their local areas. The tension and violence was far more widespread in 1969, leading to the deployment of British troops in August of that year. Now, huge numbers of armed police, and sometimes British troops, are deployed annually to ‘keep the peace’ at Drumcree.

But that is where the comparisons end. The clashes between Orangemen and nationalists in 1969 were a catalyst for something bigger, revealing a deeper unresolved conflict between Irish nationalism and the British state. The rioting in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s brought to the surface tensions that the partition of Ireland had kept in check since 1921. The violent clashes were the first stage in a far larger conflict that led to the collapse of the old Unionist order, the British Army taking control of much of Northern Ireland, and a 25-year war between British forces and the Irish Republican Army.

By contrast, the annual violence at Drumcree reveals nothing but the exhaustion of nationalism and Unionism. Far from representing an underlying political conflict, the ‘Battle of Drumcree’ is usually over symbols (the right to fly flags and bang drums), or cultural diversity (where hardened Orangemen defend the right to ‘express themselves’), or protection (with nationalists calling on the British state to protect them from Protestants). Where the tensions of 1969 led to a real conflict, Drumcree is nothing but a shadow conflict. It really is just rioting.

That is why, despite the doom-laden predictions, the Drumcree stand-off always ends so quickly: there is nothing to sustain it. After 1969, the massive build-up of British troops in Northern Ireland continued for the following four years (and British troops stayed until the peace process in the mid-1990s), and many nationalists offered their support to an emerging Provisional IRA. The Drumcree tensions, by contrast, last only a few days, before the protesters return home, the police and troops go back to barracks, and commentators start pondering what might happen Next Year.

Such vacuous clashes are the result of a peace process that is more about containing the Northern Ireland conflict, rather than resolving it. The peace process draws the political parties into a dialogue without resolving any big political questions or fundamental differences. And as political questions move down the agenda, cultural and sectarian conflicts rise to the fore.

With the national question off the agenda, and the conflict robbed of its political content, all sides in Northern Ireland have turned to culture and identity. The peace process is not about resolving the conflict but about ‘celebrating cultural diversity’ – not about overcoming the divisions between Catholics and Protestants but about recognising those ‘cultural differences’ and respecting them.

As a result, the conflict is no longer a political one over sovereignty and the right to rule, but has been reduced to little more than a squabble over cultural heritage, cultural difference and cultural respect. Unionists and nationalists once clashed over the fundamental question of whether Northern Ireland was Irish or British – now they’re more likely to get hot under the collar about what streets they can march down, what language the street signs will be in (whether it be Gaelic or the even more obscure Ulster Scots), and that their past suffering receive the ‘recognition’ it deserves.

Indeed, the ‘Battle of Drumcree’ has now become a way for all sides in Northern Ireland to cover up their lack of political principle. Unionists and nationalists rush to Drumcree each year to take part in what is fast becoming a pantomime conflict – the pretence that something important and grand is being fought over.

Unionist spokesmen use the backdrop of Protestant protesters to claim that their heritage is being trampled underfoot and they are being isolated in the New Northern Ireland (though they also criticised rioting loyalists this year). Nationalist politicians visit the beleaguered Catholics on the Garvaghy Road to declare that Catholics are still second-class citizens in Northern Ireland, and that the British government is reneging on its ‘responsibility’ to protect the nationalist community (a far cry from the days when some nationalist and republican politicians demanded an end to British interference in Irish affairs).

But in their attempt to feed off Drumcree, nationalist and Unionist politicians merely expose the hole at the heart of their politics, where neither side has anything of substance to fight for. By elevating cultural issues over political questions, the peace process has robbed both nationalist and Unionist parties of their rationale – and has unleashed new rounds of conflict that may be fleeting, but which are also destructive and sectarian.

As for next year – some politicians are probably booking their places already.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) It’s Dumbcree, Mirror, 8 July 2002

(2) It’s shades of 1969 all over again, Observer, 9 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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