The July parades in Northern Ireland celebrate a Protestant military victory over a Catholic army at the Battle of the Boyne in the Republic of Ireland over 300 years ago. The marches are an in-your-face expression by some of Northern Ireland's Protestants to maintain their appearance of superiority over Catholics.
An anti-Catholic organization called the "Orange Order" is chiefly responsible.
Led by loud, oversized drums, and bands screaming "Down with the Pope" and denouncing all things Catholic, the parades unsurprisingly create bitter resentment when they are allowed to march through Catholic neighborhoods.
A contingent of the local Orange Order featuring sullen old men in back-of-the-closet dark suits, anachronistic black Bowler hats and large be-medaled Orange sashes, struts itself through neighborhoods they would not dare visit dressed this way without the police protection that must accompany the parades.
It is a sad commentary on the state of peace in Northern Ireland that these parades through Catholic neighborhoods are permitted at all. They also give the small minority of Catholic nationalists who have not accepted the Good Friday agreement (called Dissidents) a perfect opportunity to cause much of the rioting that we read about each year.
But the political forces in Northern Ireland are in such a delicate balance that authorities must allow these expressions of direct antagonism; if they don't, hardline Unionists won't cooperate at all.
The North Belfast Ardoyne parade on the Crumlin Road is a good example of how unreal, purely symbolic, and finger-in-the-dike like the parade effort has become. North Belfast was second only to West Belfast in number of killings during the height of the troubles from 1968 to the mid 1990s. There is a stretch of the Crumlin Road hardly 200 yards long that is the center of rioting every year. Catholics' homes surround the 200 yards and Protestants, mostly pensioners, live at the end of the 200 yards and beyond. The area was completely Protestant up until 20-25 years ago when the ever-growing Catholic community began to expand and move into the area. Today the 200 yards is 100 percent Catholic, but since it was Protestant years ago authorities have consistently issued permits for the Orange Order to march.
On July 12,, with riot police in and out of their vehicles, a limited number of Orange Order marchers gathered in a connecting street and quickly marched the 200 yards past yelling protesters toward the cheers of the Protestant crowd waiting for them in their own territory. The rioting then began and continued well into the night, and at times through the next day. With this, dissident troublemakers were provided a perfect opportunity to throw stones and set fire to vehicles despite the presence of leading Sinn Fein politicians working with the police to identify and control the rioters.
It's a show. The media love it, the police are injured, and the "hard men" on both sides somehow feel they have accomplished something.
After the situation calms down in the days following, elderly Protestants once again use the Post Office located on the 200 yards, right alongside Catholic residents doing their own shopping. No peace walls have been built since both sides have to use the same stores and services located in the disputed area.
It should be noted that during all of this, 90 percent of the rest of Belfast is peaceful. The trouble usually occurs only when the Orange Order decides to march through a Catholic area.
The hope is that with the peace process moving forward in the years ahead, this type of confrontation will go away and both sides will learn to live together.