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Women belonging to an Orange Order lodge march through Belfast Photo by: David Moir/REUTERS

Northern Ireland police force take a positive stand against marching season

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Women belonging to an Orange Order lodge march through Belfast Photo by: David Moir/REUTERS

The Unionist marching season includes about 2,300 marches across Northern Ireland. The Republican marching season includes about 70 marches usually clustered around Easter Rising commemoration ceremonies and held in their own communities.

It is important to place the marches from the different communities in perspective when discussing the outrageous activities around the 2013 marching season.

People calling for a ban on all marches equate the two communities as similar, but that is far from the truth.

Marching has always been a Unionist weapon of expressing their supremacy, and fond hopes that marches would eventually become just cultural symbols of diminishing significance, alas, have not panned out.

Many of the Unionist marches are not controversial and are held in their own neighborhoods, but there are an increasing number that seek to march through or infringe on Nationalist areas where residents want no lambeg drums beating or triumphalist chants, often from inebriated participants.

What changed this year was that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stepped up to the mark and carried out the law to the letter when dealing with rogue marches and marchers.

That was a huge change and very important for the future of the North.

There is no more visible example of a successful peace process than a police force that protects both communities equally.

In recent years the PSNI had been seen to favor the Orange marchers, but this year that changed dramatically and scores of their police force were injured defending Nationalist neighborhoods from banned marches.

If there is a silver lining in the marches debacle that is it. It was an important boost for Nationalist community confidence in the relatively new police force.

Otherwise it is easy to despair at the lack of political foresight in unionism, which each year allows the marchers to trek into the same dead end politically where they seem to be at the mercy of the ugliest tendencies within their community.

Where is the leadership in all that? Where is the need to take an international view and see the damage that is being done to Northern Ireland overseas with the gory images of police being stoned, masked mobs roaming at will and massive property damage?

Alas, every summer it seems the mob mentality rules and the Unionist politicians duck for cover.
The reality is that the Orange Order, once the touchstone of political power in Unionist Northern Ireland, is quickly disappearing as a result of these riots.

The days when all top positions in Northern Ireland were filled by men who swore allegiance to that order are gone.

Respectable Unionists now see that it is a hindrance and a drawback, as the order now incorporates mob violence in many of its marches.

One wonders what Richard Haass, the American special envoy, will make of it all when he arrives back in the North to try and seek a consensus on issues not resolved in the aftermath of the peace process.

At least Haass has seen it all before when he was special envoy under President George W. Bush and will not be fazed by the violence and demagoguery that marks marching season.

But he will also know that it is time for unionism in particular to shed this image of hooliganism and drunken thuggery that has come to epitomize Northern Ireland to the world every summer.

The question will be whether he can find political leaders on that side to work with from the community level on up who see it that way too.

That is a question that needs to be answered.

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