July in Belfast often means marching to taunt; where is Unionist leadership?

The month of July marks the most difficult time of the year for Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city. It is in the seventh month that the Protestant community, led by the notorious Orange Order, annually renews the famous “marching season,” sending loud and boisterous bands and Orange Order members matching into Catholic communities where they pass in front of Catholic churches.
The leaders of the Orange group claim the right of tradition to justify the marches, which almost always create violence and mayhem on both sides of the divide in the North. Policemen, too, are hurt, and the cost of security around the marches is enormous. The marchers scream insults at Catholics who are standing in front of their homes as the bands play and sing songs of bigotry. Last year, when a band stopped, some of its members urinated on the steps of St. Patrick’s Church in Belfast.
Nearly 16 years after the 1998 Good Friday agreement was signed and endorsed by the electorates in the North and the South of Ireland, these marches continue to flaunt Protestant superiority over Catholics in the North. But it often goes beyond simple flaunting. A video from London has just been released showing a young couple having sex on the altar of Good Shepherd Catholic Church on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. The priest who gave permission for use of the church naively thought the filmmakers were going to use the altar for a music video. The parishioners are deeply offended, of course.
Not all Protestants approve of the taunting. The overwhelming majority do not want to return to the days of violence but there is a significant minority that thinks that street parades, street protests, and riots are not only their right but also that they are required to protect their way of life.
But Belfast is undergoing dramatic change, some of it good and some of it very bad. The main cause of the change is the surge in the Catholic population and the resulting fear in the Protestant community that their control of life in the city has gone. According to a BBC news report in early April of this year, the Catholic population in Belfast is young and has risen to 49 percent of the total. The Protestant population, older and passing away, has dropped to 42 percent. The remaining nine percent comprises immigrant populations or those with no fixed religion.
One of the first results of the new majorities on the Belfast City Council has been the election of Catholic mayors. Another was the controversial vote by the Council limiting the occasions when the British flag is to be flown over City Hall, a move that generated violent year-long riots all over Northern Ireland.
There are two other major impacts due to these changes. First, the Protestant men of violence have turned their anger and violence on the small immigrant population and second, the revelation of the apparent incompetence and almost supportive bumbling of the Unionist Protestant Leader, Peter Robinson, now the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Frequent violent attacks have been made on immigrant homes and families and they are continuing on a daily basis. Protestant men living in disadvantaged poor areas are known for their illiteracy rates, so it may be difficult for them to understand how such assaults can injure all of Belfast, even their own areas. Signs have been hung on immigrant houses proclaiming “Locals Only.” Some of the houses have been trashed with baseball bats and large hammers in what seems a manifestation of the perpetrators’ growing paranoia. First Minister Robinson has stated he sees nothing wrong with these signs.
In another instance, an Ian Paisley follower who is a Presbyterian minister recently attacked Muslims in the most bitter language. Robinson agreed with the minister until others in leadership forced him to apologize. Such a back-and-forth seems to be an indication of a dysfunctional leadership at the top of the Unionist/Protestant political party.
As we approach July, this is a good time for those of us here in Boston to send our best good wishes to all the people of Northern Ireland. There are many kind and hard-working people in Belfast on all sides who, hopefully, will one day be able to put all this disruption behind them.