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Text: Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan ... Page Design: Fionnuala McKenna

Parade and Protest:
A Discussion of Parading Disputes in Northern Ireland


There is a long history of pseudo-military parades in the British Isles. In Ireland throughout the eighteenth century the government held annual parades to commemorate the Williamite revolution, but it was also common for formalised groupings such as the Freemasons, Journeyman associations and later the Volunteer Companies or irregular bands of citizens, Jacobite supporters and agrarian secret societies to parade themselves in public. Amongst the diverse group we now broadly define as the Protestant community, the right to bear arms in defence was in part seen as fundamental to their position as subject and citizen. Whilst in the rest of the British Isles there has been general agreement as to the nature of the state and the position of the subject within the state, the populous of Ireland has not shared in that security. As such, there have been social and political reason for the continued banding together of interested parties. The custom of holding parades is therefore not unique to Ireland but it has been extenuated by political circumstances. The political identity of the two dominant communities in the north of Ireland have thus become closely linked to the development of an extensive range of anniversaries marked by a parade (see 4.1).

The huge difference in the number and continuity of parades between the two communities can be partly understood in terms of their relationship to the state. Early Orange parades, at the end of the eighteenth century, were effectively encouraged by the state in order to oppose the rise of the United Irishmen. Until the 1870s the banding together of groups, Protestant and Catholic, resulted in frequent sectarian clashes and were consequently seen as a threat to the state. Parades were often an expression of sectarian, communal, opposition and were, at least officially, discouraged, re-routed or banned (Wright 1987, 1996). After 1870 the Orange Institution became more extensively patronised by both the landed classes and the Belfast bourgeoisie and it was used to mobilise opposition to the campaign for Home Rule and to create a distinctive British identity. The increased popularity and respectability allowed Orange parades to flourish whilst similar events which supported Home Rule, particularly in Ulster, were opposed. Even with the expansion of the nationalist Ancient Order of Hibernians at the start of the twentieth century the dominant position of Orange parades remained. Put simply, the number of places in which Orangemen were able to parade was always far higher than those open to nationalist parades. Any attempt by nationalists to parade in areas with anything less than a large Roman Catholic majority was quickly stopped.

This process reached fruition with the formation of Northern Ireland. Both the northern and southern states developed a collective identity which was based upon the single dominant ethno-religious group. Commemorative events which reflected this political identity were enshrined by the state while others were opposed. Orange parades in the south became increasingly difficult to organise as they came under threat from local IRA groups. In the north the Twelfth effectively became a ritual of state while nationalists were restricted to marching in a limited number of areas. In towns such as Lurgan, with a mixed population, nationalist parades often caused disturbances. Any Unionist politician who attempted to restrict an Orange parades came under enormous political pressure so that by the late 1950s there were even Orange parades taking place through the almost exclusively Roman Catholic town of Dungiven.

The relationship of the state to public expression in the form of parades has provided the environment for loyalist parades to flourish, whilst nationalist or republican parades have been restricted. This in itself goes a long way to explaining why loyalist parades are so numerous and apparently carry so much 'tradition'. They have so many 'traditional routes' simply because they have, certainly until the fall of Stormont, been in the political position continually to reassert those routes. The claim of 'tradition' is therefore closely linked to the historical power relations in Northern Ireland. But, as we will show, there is a strong decentralist and democratic tradition within the Protestant community. Many of the more parochial parades are important expressions of local identity, reasserting the social and political relationships within that community. This has perhaps been made more significant by the increased geographical dispersal of the population. The profligate number of small parades can therefore be understood in terms of the localised nature of the loyal orders and the social relationships they give expression to within their particular communities, as well as by examining the broader political environment.

In the following sections we will begin with an overview of the structure of the loyalist parading bodies. This will be followed by a typological description of their parades. We then consider the annual cycle of parades or the 'marching season' and discuss some of the local variations in parading practice. Finally Section Five offers an brief overview of the changes in parading culture over the past ten years.

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