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After the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, Orange parades came to symbolise the Protestant and Unionist ascendency in Northern Ireland, feeding the resentment already felt by many Catholics and nationalists at what they perceived as triumphalist displays of supremacy.3 During the Troubles, the parading season (July – August) invariably led to violent clashes between nationalists and unionists, as each side sought to carve out territory for their respective community, symbolising the prevailing ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality of the Troubles. Disputes over parades also caused significant problems for all the parties in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in Northern Ireland in 1998 and, in accordance with the recommendations of an independent inquiry into parading in Northern Ireland, the Labour Government legislated for the establishment of an independent parades commission to manage disputed parades. While the parades commission and its determinations have not been universally welcomed in Northern Ireland, neither has there been any consensus over alternative arrangements. Draft legislation formulated by an Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) working group was rejected by a number of groups in Northern Ireland, including the Orange Order.4 Fifteen years after the signing of the GFA, the parades issue continues to cause significant problems for the powersharing government. This year, tensions have been compounded by the loyalist protests linked to the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag on designated days, rather than all the time. For many unionists and loyalists, the decision to lower the Union flag represents a further step in a sustained attack on their British identity, which they link to developments in the peace process of the 1990s such as parades legislation and the inclusion of former paramilitaries in government.

The Relationship between Parades and the Peace Process

Following the intense rioting surrounding the Drumcree parades in Portadown, Co.
Armagh, in 1995 and 1996, the Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary, Patrick
Mayhew, established an independent review of parades and marches in Northern
Ireland under the chairmanship of Peter North, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University,
with Father Oliver Crilly and the Very Reverend John Dunlop. The review was asked to
assess ‘the current arrangements for handling public processions and open-air public
meetings and associated public order issues’, to examine ‘the powers and
responsibilities of the Secretary of State, police and others’ and whether ‘new machinery, both formal and informal’ was needed to manage disputed parades.5
The North Report, published in January 1997, also included an analysis of the reasons for
the eruption of disorder over parades in the 1990s, and suggested that a ‘variety of
factors’ were to blame, including ‘the wider political situation, the relative selfconfidence
of the respective parts of the community at both national and local level, and
the attitudes and actions of individuals and groups including the police’.6 This article
suggests that the second factor, ‘the relative self-confidence’ of nationalists and
unionists is the most significant dynamic fuelling the increased significance of parades
disputes in the 1990s and 2000s, and was most affected by wider developments in the
peace process such as paramilitary activity (and inactivity), shifts in republican
strategy, and improvements in Anglo-Irish relations, all of which have contributed to a
growing sense of self-confidence amongst nationalists, and increasing unionist
insecurity and divisions.

With the announcement of the ceasefires of the main paramilitary groups in 1994 (the
IRA declared a ‘complete cessation of military operations’ on 31 August,7 while the
Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC), representing the Ulster Defence
Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Red Hand Commandos,
announced they would ‘cease all operational hostilities’ from 13 October,8 the
nationalist community became increasingly confident in expressing their grievances.
Evelyn White of the Garvaghy Road Residents’ Coalition (GRRC) suggested that ‘after
the paramilitary cease-fires, people began to have new hope’ that their concerns about
Orange parades might be taken seriously by the Order, and that contentious parades
might be voluntarily re-routed from nationalist areas.9 Harvey Cox suggests that ‘only
with ceasefires could the parades issue have been brought to the fore in the reasonable
confidence that it would not spark off a spate of killings’, concluding that the parades
issue ‘can be seen not only as a reminder of continuing strife but paradoxically also as a symptom of easement’.10 However, the threat of a resumption of violence by paramilitaries remained in the background during parades disputes. The Loyalist Volunteer Force leader and resident of Portadown, Billy Wright, played a prominent role in the Drumcree protests in 1995 and 1996 and, in 1997, the LVF threatened to embark on a bombing campaign in the Republic of Ireland if the Orange parade was
prevented from proceeding down the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown.11 In addition, unionists suspected that the IRA had threatened to resume their armed campaign if the Drumcree parade was allowed along Garvaghy Road in 1998: ‘Everyone
knows why the same decision was taken last year and this Republican violence (including the threat of the IRA escalating its activities) and political pressure from pannationalism were then and are now the prime motives’.12 Moreover, the North Report recognised that ‘Unionists’ experience of suffering at the hands of the Provisional IRA and the current uncertain political situation and consequent insecurity have played a large part in the widespread sense of anger felt by members of the Loyal Orders at the strategy of residents groups in opposing parades’.13

The IRA ceasefire was related to a second feature of increased nationalist confidence in
opposing Orange parades; Cox suggests that, after the ceasefires, opposition to parades
was a means by which Sinn Féin could maintain the momentum of the republican
campaign, and strengthen their identification with Catholic communities and its status
as the defenders of their interests. Opposition to contentious parades related to the
shift in Sinn Féin’s rhetoric from ‘classic Irish republicanism to emphasising an “equality
agenda”’.14 This argument was particularly popular amongst Unionists and Orangemen
as it meant they could blame the scenes of disorder and violence which surrounded
certain controversial parades on republicans. Robert McCartney, MP for North Down
and leader of the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP), informed the House of
Commons that ‘when the overt use of the bomb and the gun stopped, the IRA deliberately opened a second front, which consisted of civil unrest, attacks on parades and the spreading of violence among the community at large’.15 Orangemen considered
community opposition to their parades to be an expression of the IRA’s post-ceasefire
strategy of TUAS (Tactical Use of Armed Struggle),16 and resented the possibility that
they were being manipulated by republicans. This contributed to their intransigence in
negotiations, and refusal to talk directly with residents’ groups. The Grand Orange
Lodge of Ireland argued in June 1997 that ‘[I]t is irrefutable that Sinn Fein/IRA is
manipulating certain “resident groups” with a view to preventing or impeding
Orangemen in the exercise of their civil rights.’17 However, this argument was
vehemently refuted by residents and republicans alike. The Garvaghy Road residents
argued that ‘we are a community united, not a puppet of Sinn Fein’.18 Dara O’Hagan,
Sinn Féin MLA for Upper Bann, argued that Sinn Féin ‘did not have to manufacture the
situation or manipulate people in the Nationalist community or residents’ groups to
protest at the marches. There has always been deep-seated antagonism and injustice,
and there has been organised protest at various periods over the years.’19 While there
is little doubt that Sinn Féin exploited the parades issue and reaped political benefit
from the confrontations,20 the conclusion that Lord Alderdice (then leader of the
Alliance Party) reached seems most likely to represent reality:

In the republican community, when the ceasefires came about, and the
energies that were particularly deployed in more violent ways were freed
up, it may have been quite attractive for them to seek out other ways of
expressing contention … I think what happened was that a few contentious
parades quickly came to the attention of leading figures in the republican
movement, and they realised the opportunity that this bestowed upon them
to create difficulties.21

Regardless of the actual extent of Sinn Féin’s influence on parades disputes, unionist
insecurity was an important feature of the increasing salience of parades in the peace
process in the 1990s. At Drumcree in 1998, Ian Paisley, then leading the anti-Good
Friday Agreement campaign, announced that ‘there is deep resentment at what the Government is doing, and people feel … this is the time when they all make a stand’.22
Indeed, Alistair Graham, the first chairman of the Parades Commission, observed of
Drumcree 1998, ‘we all know this one is not simply about the parade itself’.23
Opposition to re-routing of parades became an arena for the expression of unionist
insecurity and resentment at the direction of the peace process. For unionists and the
Loyal Orders, acceptance of parades was ‘an indicator of how they would be treated in
any new political arrangement’;24 Jeffrey Donaldson, then in the UUP, asked in the Irish
Times on 4 July 1996, ‘[I]f nationalists cannot tolerate the culture and traditions of the
Orange Order for 15 minutes in one year then I think we are entitled to ask what hope
there is for the future.’25 Unionists feared that if nationalists could challenge Orange
parades while Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, then there was little
hope of their traditions being respected in a future united Ireland. Furthermore,
unionists felt that challenges to their parades equated to challenges to their identity as
citizens of the United Kingdom, an occupational hazard of the zero-sum game which
governed politics in Northern Ireland (that if one side had won some concession, then
the other side must have lost something fundamental).26 In the context of parades, for
unionists ‘all challenges to tradition are seen as a capitulation to the IRA. They are a
threat to the Union, to one’s identity as British and as a Protestant. It is the beginning of
the road to Rome-rule, to Dublin-rule, and to integration into a United Ireland.’27 Even if
the political talks did not result in Irish unification, unionists feared the implications for
their parades if nationalists and republicans entered government: the Orange Standard
argued that ‘Protestants need proof that Sinn Fein-IRA really does respect their culture
and traditions, and they certainly need to be convinced that this attitude exists as far as
their Orange parades are concerned.’28 Such concerns have not been assuaged by declarations such as ‘there is no rationale for an Orange parade along the Garvaghy Road’ from Gerry Adams.29

Unionist insecurity was manifested in divisions within unionism, as voters were divided
between parties which offered to negotiate a way out of the conflict, and parties which
refused to contemplate any concessions to republicans. The 1996 Forum elections saw
Trimble’s Ulster Unionists secure forty six per cent of the unionist vote, while Ian
Paisley and other hardliners won forty three per cent. This left Trimble and the UUP in
a position which was ill-suited to make serious concessions on issue such as parades,
which had the capacity to radicalise more moderate voters.30 Similarly, the DUP’s
actions in the flags protests and publication (in association with the UUP) of a leaflet
blaming the Alliance Party for Belfast City Council’s decision to lower the flag, were
undoubtedly related to Peter Robinson’s defeat by the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long in
the 2010 General Election. By 1998, unionism was deeply divided over the Good Friday
Agreement,31 with serious consequences for the parades issue:

It is the existence of the fledgling accord that renders the present stand-off
over Drumcree so dangerous … unionism is split almost exactly down the
middle. Mr Trimble won only a slender majority of the unionist vote.
Drumcree is producing intense polarisation, sending many back to the
sectarian trenches and leaving the new first minister exposed and

The Drumcree dispute was particularly pertinent given that Drumcree was not only in
David Trimble’s constituency, meaning that those involved on both sides of the protest
were his constituents, but also the fact that he had previously participated in the
Drumcree stand-off in his capacity as an Orangeman. Indeed, Trimble’s hardline
position in Drumcree 1995 contributed to his election as UUP leader.

Unionist insecurity was also fuelled by the developments in Anglo-Irish relations since
the 1980s. There was regular contact between British and Irish ministers in the
Inter-Governmental Conference established by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and
unionists feared that the attempts to re-route Orange parades resulted from pressure
from the Republic of Ireland.33 Robert McCartney wrote:

The scenes of inexcusable and unjustifiable violence witnessed in recent
days did not occur spontaneously. They were the culmination of events for
which both the British and Irish governments must share some
responsibility … The British consistently undersold the constitutional rights
of the majority, while the Irish assiduously pursued an irredentist policy of
Irish unity … Both governments in the undemocratic secrecy of the Inter-
Governmental Conference had encouraged quite unrealistic expectations
among the nationalist minority while exacerbating the suspicions and
insecurity of the majority about its constitutional future within the United
Kingdom … Together they primed the powder [keg] for which Drumcree was
to provide the spark.34

Certain sections of unionism, as represented by McCartney believed that the
acceleration and institutionalisation of Anglo-Irish co-operation since the 1980s
encouraged nationalists to believe that major change in the constitutional framework of
Ireland was imminent, and this contributed to their more vocal opposition to Orange
parades. However, the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley denied these claims: ‘[I]t
has been put to me over seven years frequently by unionist politicians that Maryfield
have somehow or other had an input into my decisions. They have not. They do not.
They could not. And as long as I breathe they would not.’35 The Irish Government’s
official position was that they were not involved in operational decisions on the
re-routing of parades, but that they had ‘a legitimate interest in protecting the rights of
both communities, particularly the minority, in Northern Ireland and in the avoidance of
disorder … and we offer advice and counsel on that basis’.36 For those who already
feared the influence of Dublin in internal Northern Ireland matters, claims by senior
Irish government sources to have had any input into decisions on parades were

The British Policy Response

The British government’s response to parades disputes in the 1990s was complicated
by their role in the political negotiations as facilitator and neutral arbiter,37 and the
competing perceptions amongst nationalists and unionists of what the government
should do about parades: ‘Nationalists wanted to test the sincerity of the state’s
commitment to “parity of esteem” and equal treatment within the state, while unionists
expressed their frustration and anger over what many regarded as British duplicity and
a slide towards an Irish nationalist agenda.’38 For nationalists, the British Government’s
willingness to take their concerns about parade routes seriously was indicative of a
willingness to treat them fairly on broader political issues, such as representation in
government.39 Unionists, however, believed that parades legislation was an
unnecessary and undesirable concession to republicans, who had, in their view, caused
the problems over parades in the first place.40 As in the wider peace process, the
foundations for Labour’s approach to parades disputes had been laid by the
Conservatives, with their establishment of the North review into parades and marches.
However, Labour’s Public Processions Act bestowed adjudicative powers on the
Parades Commission, in addition to mediation, education and conciliation.41

Article five of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 gave the Secretary of
State for Northern Ireland the power not only to re-route parades, but also to ban them
if it appeared that widespread and uncontrollable public disorder would occur if they
proceeded. However, in 1995 and 1996, Sir Patrick Mayhew refused to use this power
to re-route or ban the Drumcree parades, insisting that parade routes were ‘an
operational matter for the RUC’.42 Meanwhile the RUC claimed that re-routing parades
was a decision for the Secretary of State; it is difficult to disagree with Breandán Mac
Cionnaith’s conclusion that ‘one passed the buck to the other’.43 One of the main
problems that the Conservatives faced in relation to parades in Northern Ireland was the need to ‘avoid alienating … Ulster Unionists who were bolstering Major’s small majority’.44 However, following the violence surrounding Drumcree in 1996 and the
consequent condemnation from Dublin, Mayhew announced the independent review of
parading in Northern Ireland. While the Conservatives accepted in principle the
recommendations of the review, they did not give them full legislative effect. An
independent Parades Commission was established ‘with an education, conciliation and
mediation role’, but without legal powers to recommend the re-routing of parades.45
The Conservatives also amended the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 to
introduce an extended notification period for all parades, and new controls on alcohol at
parades. Their failure to enact in full the recommendations of the North Report was
perceived to be influenced by the Conservatives’ weak position in the Commons and
reliance on the Ulster Unionists and backbench pro-Unionist Conservatives, ‘who did
not favour the formation of a Commission with legal powers to oversee parades’.46

The Labour Party, meanwhile, included a commitment to reducing tension over
parades, and promised to ‘enact the North Report in full’ if they were elected in May
1997.47 In her memoirs, Mo Mowlam outlined her approach to the issue of parades:

arbitration is the right way forward; that local communities should try to
resolve these issues between themselves through dialogue and
accommodation; and that if accommodation can’t be found then decisions
about where a parade may or may not go should be made by an independent
body fairly, on objective criteria, and never again on the basis that might is
right, or the “lesser of two evils”.48

The associate editor of the New Statesman, John Lloyd, argued that Labour’s
commitment to tackling parades disputes was ‘very “new Labour” in its determination
to dissolve irrelevant old divisions’.49 Following the 1997 marching season, the Labour
Party honoured their commitment to enact in full the recommendations of the North
Report by introducing the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill. Although the
purpose of the Act was to regulate parades, which were almost entirely associated with the Loyal Orders, the government insisted that the legislation did not adversely affect the traditions of unionists. Adam Ingram, minister of state at the NIO, argued that the government ‘has been acutely conscious of the need to ensure that the legislation is
both balanced and seen to be balanced’.50 This linked to the Government’s
contradictory stance during the peace process as ‘neutral arbiter’ to convince
republicans and nationalists that the British government would not oppose Irish
unification if that was the choice of the majority in Northern Ireland, and as ‘champion
of the Union’ to prevent a violent loyalist backlash, such as in the 1974 Ulster Workers’
Council strike or at Drumcree in the 1990s.51 It was this relationship between parades
and the political process which caused problems for the government. In her
announcement of the Public Processions Bill, Mowlam asked ‘Does a re-route say
something about the Government’s policy towards the talks process? … The issue of
marches needs to be depoliticised. The vast bulk of the population have no wish to see a
Northern Ireland where every decision is a trial of political strength along the same old
lines.’52 Yet it was clear to everyone involved that ‘festering disputes’ in areas like
parades had the potential to threaten progress in the political talks.53 Moreover, the
government hoped that success in the political talks might allow more room for
accommodation and resolution of parades disputes.

The Labour Government learned from the experience of Drumcree 1996, where the NIO
and the RUC blamed each other for not exercising their powers to re-route parades, and
Drumcree 1997, when Mowlam and the RUC bowed to the loyalist protest and allowed
the march along Garvaghy Road as the lesser of two evils. The addition of adjudicative
powers to the Parades Commission ‘reduced the pressure on the police; they are no
longer seen as making politically-motivated decisions and they have therefore been able
to concentrate on policing the events on the ground’.54 Moreover, one of the objectives
of separating parades decisions from the functions of the government and the police
was to increase nationalist confidence in the impartiality of the police, and demonstrate
that parades decisions were irrelevant to Labour’s commitment to the peace process.

This ‘solved the problem of blame by implication for politicians because adjudications
are now distant from political control’.55 While unionists suggested that the
government was ‘seeking to divest themselves of authority’ by bestowing adjudicative
powers on the Parades Commission,56 the experiences of 1995-1997 demonstrated that
making and enforcing decisions about parades in Northern Ireland was a no-win
situation for the government or the police. If a parade was re-routed, it was a
concession to nationalist and republican agitation; if it was allowed to proceed through
nationalist areas, it was a reiteration of ‘present-day British supremacy’.57

While the Labour Government sought to distance itself from making decisions on
parades, and to present itself as a neutral arbiter, its actions in parading disputes
inevitably influenced perceptions of its relationships with nationalists and unionists in
Northern Ireland. Blair’s initial emphasis on reassuring unionists that they ‘have
nothing to fear from a New Labour government’,58 combined with the decision to allow
the Drumcree march to proceed along the Garvaghy Road, nearly derailed the options
for progress with nationalists. Donnacha Mac Niallais of the Bogside Residents’ Group,
argued that Blair’s Belfast speech ‘put down a marker as to where his loyalties lay. His
loyalties have nothing to do with principles, respect, equality or fair play. His loyalties
lie with the unionists.’59 However, Labour’s decision to support the decision of the
Parades Commission to re-route the Drumcree parade in 1998, and to resist the
anti-agreement unionists’ efforts to use Drumcree to destroy the Good Friday
Agreement, marked a turning point in British policy on parades disputes, compared by
one commentator to Margaret Thatcher and the miners’ strike.60 Hugo Young, the
Guardian’s political correspondent, concluded that ‘British acquiescence will never be
the same again. Any British complicity in perpetuating Ulster’s multiple intolerances is
at an end.’61

The parades issue highlights the problems faced by the British government in
navigating the difficult relationship between the high politics of the Northern Ireland
peace process, and grassroots tensions over identity, territory and culture. The British
government’s approach to parades disputes reflected the wider policy imperative of
managing, rather than resolving, the conflict in Northern Ireland. In comparison to its
hands-on attitude to the political negotiations after 1998, the government’s parades
policy has been characterised by a distinctively detached approach, as it has left the
management of parades disputes to the Parades Commission. This has had the
advantage of allowing British politicians to distance themselves from unpopular
determinations by the Commission, while also facilitating their detachment from what
is effectively an irresolvable issue. The British government has also been able to
acknowledge the dissatisfaction felt by many in Northern Ireland at the work of the
Parades Commission, whilst distancing itself from responsibility for finding a
replacement for the Commission, as demonstrated by the Hillsborough Agreement
2010.62 For Northern Ireland politicians, direct engagement in parades disputes has
often proved a double-edged sword. Peter Robinson’s engagement in the flags protests
was not met with approval by the public; a BBC Spotlight poll found that only twenty
two per cent of the public believed he had dealt well with the flags protests.63 The
primary lesson from parades policy since 1995 has been that the direct intervention of
politicians in local parading disputes, whether from Westminster or Stormont, rarely
ameliorates the situation, and even more rarely enhances the reputations of the
politicians concerned. In this context, the Parades Commission performs a necessary, if
unloved, function, and any future alternative arrangements for the management of
parades disputes ought to remain independent from both politicians and the police.


Parading disputes presented a particularly vexing problem for the authorities in the
1990s, and continue to do so today, as they reflect and reinforce sectarian divisions in
Northern Ireland. They are a product of the specific political context of the peace process, and the unionist insecurity and nationalist self-confidence engendered by the political negotiations, and illustrate the specific concerns that unionists and nationalists have about the direction of the peace process. For unionists, parades disputes reinforce
their fears about the dilution of their cultural identity in any new political settlement,
the role of republicans and the Irish government in driving the attack, and the apparent
acquiescence of the British government. For their part, parades disputes seem to
confirm the concerns of nationalists and republicans about the British commitment to
promoting their equal citizenship with Northern Ireland. Moreover, the British
government’s management of parades disputes highlights two fundamental aspects of
its approach to the wider peace process: consent and balance. It has been noted that
‘consent extended far beyond mere acceptance or rejection of Northern Ireland’s
constitutional status. Instead consent extended to the type of Northern Ireland on
offer.’64 Thus the British government introduced a range of reforms in order to gain the
consent of nationalists to a settlement which stopped well short of Irish unity. Parades
legislation joined policing reform and a number of inquiries into the past (including the
Bloody Sunday Inquiry) in addressing specific nationalist concerns.

This related to the second feature of the British government’s engagement in the
Northern Ireland peace process. Mo Mowlam observed that, for the British government,
the peace process felt like ‘walking a tightrope, weighing the interests of one side
against another and trying not to lose anyone’.65 Seeking to balance nationalist and
unionist demands was a priority for the government; hence the concern to insist that
the Public Processions Act was even-handed. Parades remain, however, a source of
bitter contention in Northern Ireland, and tensions have not been alleviated by the
behaviour of some of the participants both in parades and in the related protests.66 Just
as disputes and confrontation over parades and marches contributed to the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s, so issues surrounding contentious parades in Northern Ireland have continued beyond the ostensible end of the conflict, reflecting the fact that the fundamental dispute over identity and territory in Northern Ireland remains

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