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Normality quietly musters in the North

Newish Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster is in the middle of a successful charm offensive. She is popular, even with some Nationalists. The vortex into normality engulfs ever more of the increasingly hateless political classes despite themselves.

We have recently emerged from one of the quietest marching seasons since the Troubles began. Any friction was small-scale. The last highly-contentious parades to survive into the present are the annual July 12th morning and evening parades by Orange lodges and associated bands from Belfast’s Upper Crumlin Road area. These pass the Catholic Ardoyne area.

The Parades Commission has refused permission for the return leg of this. In recent years, there has been serious violence on it. This year, there was a short stand-off, then some skirmishing. Only one of the lodges involved in the parade took part in protests.

There have been talks between representatives of the Orange Order and Nationalist residents. Both parties, in principle, accept the need for dialogue. Nationalist representatives are willing to accept a march, while Orange representatives accept provocative behaviour is unacceptable.

Overall, the great majority of Protestants believe the Loyal Orders have a right to march. However, pointless street violence is a turn-off.

There are internal tensions, with a perception that the more intransigent sections of the Orange contingent come from areas with few Catholics. Some Loyalists disparagingly refer to them as ‘seaside Orangemen’, whose intransigence fuels violence around interface areas. Then they go home, leaving community workers on the ground to pick up the pieces. Some Orangemen feel that these drive an agenda of refusing to talk to Nationalist residents – because they don’t have to face the issue in their own areas.

Within the Orange community, there is also a tiredness. Many feel ‘protested out’ after long protests at Drumcree in Portadown and Ardoyne were unsuccessful.

On the Catholic/Nationalist side there is no great love of Orange. However, there is also an acceptance that marches are a part of life, and no great appetite to oppose them as long as they are properly conducted, and there is consultation.

Marching, of course, has been a lively issue in the North, and Ulster, since the Orange Order was established in the 1790s. Even in quiet periods like the early 1950s there were occasional riots in the curtelage of Orange processions.

However, what the summer produced was the unexpected. We’re used to Somme-visiting Martin McGuinness taking tea with royalty but no writer would have been bold enough to make up the contact between flag protestor Jamie Bryson and Sinn Féin’s Assembly Finance Committee Chair, Dáithí McKay.

Bryson came to prominence as an organiser of protests when Belfast City Council voted to cease flying the Union Jack every day on City Hall. He was against Sinn Féin being in government. However, there he was undoubtedly, exchanging friendly messages with McKay.

McKay, one of Sinn Féin’s most able performers, has resigned. Bryson’s limited credibility as a hardliner has been tainted.

It is unclear who leaked the messages. Bryson has strenuously denied responsibility. He is, though, the main suspect.

Mckay welcomes Bryson to Stormont NAMA Inquiry
Mckay welcomes Bryson to Stormont NAMA Inquiry

The affair has damaged Sinn Féin’s image of discipline and control. Bryson is a loose cannon. He had good information on the actions of NAMA in the North: this obviously came from the anti-Robinson faction in the DUP. If Sinn Féin is established to have been working with him they will look far worse than duplicitous: they will look stupid. It is interesting that Frank Connolly reported in Village last year that Gerry Adams was “telegraphing” messages to ensure Peter Robinson knew that unless he resurrected the suspended executive Sinn Féin would play hard ball on his Nama travails.

Meanwhile, this controversy has taken the focus away from the sale of NAMA properties in the North at significantly below value. There is no evidence that former First Minister Peter Robinson engaged in any illegal activity. However, several of those involved in the sales were perceived as close to Robinson. There are still big questions to be answered: the Bryson- McKay controversy has (to date) diverted attention from this.

The summer also showed how the Sinn Féin – DUP arrangement is still stable. Foster’s political honeymoon will, naturally, not last but she has people skills that Robinson lacked. It is significant that the DUP did not call for the head of Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muileoir until late in the day – and is not threatening the Executive on the issue. DUP sources see the Executive as solid.

There were unexpected developments on bonfires, too. As expected Sinn Féin posters were burned on Loyalist bonfires round the 12th. They were also burned on a bonfire built by alienated young people in Derry’s Bogside. That youth alienation, across the community, is a bigger threat than the growth of Republican or Loyalist dissidents.

By Anton McCabe