At the beginning of September I wrote about the violence following a parading dispute in North Belfast, in the aftermath of which police and community leaders raised fears of a repeat during the centennial commemorations of the signing of the Ulster Covenant at the end of September. In the event, however, these fears were not realised: with the exception of the disagreements about whether the bands held to Parade Commission rulings on the march past St Matthew’s Church, the day passed off without disorder.
Nonetheless, the event drew a predictable deluge of commentary. Some saw the marches as an unsavoury commemoration of law-breaking. Unionists and loyalists used the occasion to re-articulate a defence of the Union in the shadow of the impending referendum on Scottish independence. The sheer scale of the commemoration – 30,000 marchers, many tens of thousands more spectators in a city of a quarter of a million, half of whom are Catholics – was also a reminder of the salience of history in a country that seems stubbornly wedded to its past.
For this author, above all the celebrations re-highlighted the complex contractual ‘Britishness’ of many unionists whose affection for British institutions and legal codes seems at times rather dependent on how well they correspond to unionist interests. The British nationalism of Ulster Unionists is underpinned by an affinity with the ‘constitution’ that was born at the moment of Protestant Ascendency in Great Britain in the seventeenth century. This identity has crept through history, re-energised at key moments such as the signing of the covenant and the blood sacrifice at the Somme. For the British left-wing, of course, looking outwards through the guilt-hazed lens of its colonial apologia, Ulster Unionism’s unapologetic attachment to British imperialism (and all its violence) is disturbingly anachronistic and alien. It was perhaps therefore rather unfortunate that none other than Nick Griffin, accompanied by the usual furore, should turn up to offer his own brand of support.
Casting politics and history aside for a minute, however, there is another, less visible story here that is worth some serious reflection. While the police praised organisers for ensuring the day ended peacefully, no commentator considered why, despite the anticipation, there was no disorder or violence at these parades. Here lies a truth that remains largely unrecognised in Northern Ireland, that despite the social divisions enduring in the long shadows of the ‘peace walls’ the violence is kept largely in check. What we don’t remember often enough is that the parades that result in violent confrontations are exceptions and not rules. Of the nearly 4000 parades a year, an ever-decreasing number are contentious (195 in 2011), with less than a quarter of these resulting in disorder.
There are a number of reasons why this is so, including the skilled, experienced and professional conduct of the Police Service in Northern Ireland, the tireless work of stewards and community representatives appointed by the marching organisations themselves, the routing of the parades to avoid contentious areas and the restraint shown by nationalists (who, given the central message of the parade, are perfectly entitled to feel rather excluded).
But scant recognition is accorded to one other important group that is routinely involved in making sure parades pass off peacefully – former combatants. To see how this is so, it is necessary to understand a little of the social geography of division in Northern Ireland. Much of the conflict played out in working class areas, often heavily segregated and in many cases still divided by peace walls. The vast majority of those who became involved in paramilitary organisations, went to prison, or otherwise felt the brunt of the conflict lived – and live today still – in these communities. It is the parades through these heavily segregated areas that are the most contentious.
Former combatants often wield significant influence in these trouble spots and operate as informal peacekeepers and peacebuilders. Their knowledge of local conditions, a commitment to improve the lot of the community and a long, painful experience of the privations and miseries of conflict, are a valuable resource for the police and other statutory authorities. Former combatants are often deployed as stewards at the front lines of contentious parades, diffusing tensions and preventing outbreaks of violence. Elsewhere they are the first to arrive at the scene of interface violence, committing themselves to the fray, sometimes at considerable personal risk. Many have become full time community activists or are involved in local politics, undertaking to address the social legacies of the conflict. Or they have enabled symbolic peacebuilding measures such as decommissioning and the ‘re-imaging’ of militant murals. This all regularly involves working alongside former combatants from the ‘other’ side; while not always replicated at the grassroots, this nevertheless sets an important example.
Of course, any positive appraisal of the paramilitaries should be tempered by a recognition of the human destruction and suffering of forty years of conflict. Outside the white noise of raging debates about victimhood and guilt lie lingering pockets of quiet grief that scar the country. The weight of this misery lies heavy on the collective conscience of all those who were involved in the conflict, and heaviest of all on the paramilitaries whose tit-for-tat violence frequently left mothers without sons, children orphaned and sometimes set sibling against sibling, often in the most horrific and unexpected ways.
We should not forget too that while former combatants are often at the fore of efforts to re-image militant murals, it was these organisations that painted the murals in the first place, often as territorial markers and warnings. And for the kids causing trouble at interfaces it is the paramilitaries themselves, and their activities during the bloody years of conflict, that they seek to emulate. For all the brave work of some former combatants to tackle criminality, we might remember too that the paramilitary organisations provided an entire generation of young men with the very skills and contacts which now make organised crime a viable option for those unable, or unwilling, to ‘reintegrate’.
Ultimately, both these portrayals of paramiltarism are true at the same time. It is this complexity which contextualises the ongoing events in Northern Ireland, explaining the moments of peace as much as the moments of disorder. The apparent contradiction inheres in our tendency to stereotype and simplify, to forget that even paramilitary organisations represent a wide spectrum of political opinions, capacities and personalities. Sometimes, too, there are reminders of the contradictions that conflict provokes even within individuals. Almost every former combatant I have met in Northern Ireland who is steadfastly committed to peace argues in the same breath they would do the same again, were the same conditions to arise. John McMichael, who was killed by an IRA car-bomb in 1987 (and in whose honour a debate is shortly to take place involving former IRA combatants), became both the face of the Ulster Defence Association’s startlingly conciliatory political overtures in the 1980s, and a well-known mover and shaker among the organisation’s militant ‘assassination’ wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
These nuances are routinely occluded by those in the media who cast stories in black and white for an audience without the time or interest (or occasionally the emotional capacity) to witness the confused and messy reality. Dangerously, all too often these ingloriously simplified narratives reverberate in the debating chambers and the ballot boxes of a country still divided by opposing political and cultural visions of itself.
Herein, it seems, lies a salutary lesson for students and researchers of extremist violence, the best analysis of which includes an account of these subtleties and oppositions. The reality of conflict – and indeed similar manifestations of the extreme behaviours of which humans are capable – resides in the shades of grey that populate the expanses between the blacks and the whites. The student of extremism must avoid the highly-charged moral mien of many debates about extremism, and instead walk a (sometimes lonely) middle path that challenges popular narratives with dispassionate, nuanced reflection. Nowhere evidences this more clearly than Northern Ireland, where long nights and cold winds are once more descending to bring closure to a summer marked both by communal violence – but also by restraint, moderation and negotiation.