This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 22, 1996
Northern Ireland Riots
Richard Sterritt sounds sleepy after a night spent manning a Loyalist barricade in the Northern Irish border county of Armagh. But his voice swells when he's asked to describe the sound of a Lambeg drum. "It sounds like a church bell," he says of the ringing beat from the 45-lb. drums, their massive oak frames emblazoned with colorful Protestant Orange Order emblems and other symbols of Ulster heritage. Sterritt calls the rhythms pounded out on the goatskin heads "the heartbeat of Ulster," and Lambeg drummers are a staple in the Orange processions that march across the province from mid-May to August every year. The night before, the boys on the barricades had urged him to bring his drums along, but Sterritt was having none of it. "If trouble starts, if the rubber bullets fly," he asked the men who were joining in last week's Ulster riots, "will you pay to replace them?" He told them: "There is no place for a drum at a checkpoint. The Lambeg belongs at the head of a parade."
Not in our backyard, counter many Irish nationalists in the province's Roman Catholic neighborhoods. To them, the beat of the Lambeg is a war cry, its thunder as much a part of Protestant swagger as the flute bands and uniformed Billy Boys that also make up the Orange parades. The annual summer marches officially commemorate 17th-century military victories by William of Orange's Protestant forces over King James II's Catholic armies - although the Orange Order argues that, these days, they are just a family outing to celebrate their Protestant identity. But in the overheated atmosphere of Northern Ireland, many Catholics call the hundreds of parades each season a "provocation." In recent years, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has banned some Orange parades and rerouted others to skirt predominantly Catholic areas. And that is what they tried to do last week on the Garvaghy Road in Drumcree, just outside the sectarian powder keg town of Portadown, where the Portadown District Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1 has marched for the last 188 years - and counting.
The result was an explosion of rioting worse than any seen in the province since the late 1960s. Furious that an RUC cordon blocked the Orange parade from travelling down the Garvaghy Road and past a Catholic housing block, Loyalist mobs clashed with police across Ulster, barricading roads with blazing vehicles and chasing several Catholic families from their homes in predominantly Protestant neighborhoods.
But as the standoff on the Garvaghy Road neared the July 12 peak of marching season - when bonfires and burning effigies of the Pope bring out unruly mobs - the RUC backed down, parted the razor wire, and allowed the Orange parade down the patch of contentious pavement. Police found themselves swinging batons and firing rubber bullets into masses of furious Catholic rioters and, by the time the 12th rolled around, leaders on both sides were stoking sectarian emotions. The Orange march took 23 minutes to travel the Garvaghy Road. The repercussions may be felt for years.
Orange Order leaders claimed victory, but images of a smouldering Ulster and a trampled peace process proved an international public relations disaster for pro-British Unionists. Nationalist leaders presented themselves as victims of Protestant arrogance. "Orangemen have been rewarded for their lawless behavior," charged Cardinal Cahal Daly, Ireland's senior Roman Catholic church official. David Trimble, a leading Unionist party chief in Ulster - and himself an Orangeman - urged the Orange protesters to stay peaceful and warned against bringing "disgrace on our colors." But the rampaging Protestant mobs gave the world's television cameras with the pictures they love: burning cars and riot police in action. "Orangeism is supposed to represent honesty, integrity and truth, but it sure doesn't come across to the outside world that way," said a farmer who is both an Orange Order member and a reservist in the RUC.
The fallout was unmistakably anti-Orange. British commentators mocked the Order - its dour men in bowler hats, their orange sashes framing stuffy dark suits, their addiction to the pomp of parades - suggesting that such a stubborn need to ritualize the past stands in the way of peace and reconciliation. "To the modern, secular world, the Orange Order seems so old-fashioned," says Steve Bruce, a writer and authority on Ulster's Protestant culture. "There is instinctive support in the West for the apparent underdog - here, the Catholic minority. So most people share the view that the Orange Order is just silly and they ask: 'Why are you bothering with these parades?'"
But Ulster's Protestants are more skittish than ever this summer. Many fear that the embryonic peace process is destined to sever their political link with Britain, and that, even as the IRA resumes its anti-British bombing campaign, authorities in London and Dublin are intent on placating nationalists. They are upset that Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing and their most vilified enemy, has been welcomed at the White House and feted as a celebrity freedom fighter by Hollywood's glitterati. "The power of the streets is winning over the power of democracy," insisted Ian Paisley Jr., justice critic for his father's Democratic Unionist Party. "The message in Northern Ireland, taught by the IRA, is that if you create violence, you reap benefits."
In the rush to blame Orange intransigence for the rioting, few questioned whether Northern Ireland's de facto division into religious enclaves is, in itself, an obstacle to reconciliation. As Belfast Unionist city councillor Nelson McCausland warned before the Drumcree standoff: "We have too many divides in our country. Do the agitators want to create a system of apartheid where many of the roads are designated nationalist roads and Protestants are banned from them?" Indeed, the sectarian violence of the last quarter century has already led to what some in Northern Ireland call "ethnic cleansing," with the province's two main groups retreating into homogeneous, tribal enclaves. "In democratic theory, no part of a state's sovereign territory should be off-limits to any of its people," says Bruce. "But the reality in Northern Ireland is segregation. The only mixing is done in middle-class areas, and the only way the rest manage to get on is by ignoring each other and by recognizing that there are physical boundaries. Each side pushes against these territorial divisions to score political points."
The result is a strained democracy, where Catholics argue that they have a right not to be affronted by a Protestant presence in their district. "Orange parades should not be permitted into areas that object," said Adams. "It's crazy," countered Dublin-born historian Ruth Dudley-Edwards, who has written sympathetically about Ulster's Protestants. "Of course there are Orange thugs, but many of these marchers see the whole thing as a day out. The Catholic housing is well back from the Garvaghy Road. To be affronted, someone would have to leave their house and walk down to the street."
To Loyalists, who see themselves as beleaguered victims, their culture painted as pitiful and contemptible, last week's violence was a noble stand against cultural Armageddon. "The outside world stares at this wee patch of green and tells us that this tiny minority of people who are shooting us up are right, and we're wrong," says Lambeg drummer Sterritt, his voice angry now. "We are told that there are places in this country that are no-go areas. Well, this week we made our own no-go areas. And we don't care what the rest of the world thinks."
Sterritt is fiercely proud of his Orange traditions. He builds the Lambeg drums himself, and plays them in competitions all year. He doesn't like many of the drummers who show up to march on July 12th - "once-a-year men," he calls them, whose "drums are out of pitch and give drumming a bad name." The drums are heavy and hard to run with, so he is not looking for a confrontation that would put his beloved drums, or himself, in the way of a rubber bullet. He just wants to march in peace, to beat the Lambeg and "hear her ring for miles around," as he puts it. "When I'm marching in an Orange parade, I'm not playing for a crowd. It's my day. Our day. Isn't freedom of religion," he asks, "supposed to be for everybody?"
Maclean's July 22, 1996