Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Incident of the Orangemen in the District

Northern Ireland has made an incredible amount of progress over the last few years, but they still have a handful of ongoing issues to resolve. One of those issues is parades.

There are long-running social organizations in Northern Ireland, such as the Orange Order and the Ancient order of the Hibernians, whose membership is rooted entirely in either the Protestant or the Catholic community. During Marching Season, which is set to begin fairly soon, some of these organizations participate in parades through their local communities and into large urban centres. The Orangemen are especially known for this.

The marchers insist that these parades are just a celebration and an expression of their cultural heritage. But when the march route takes them through neighborhoods where many or all of the residents belong to the other cultural tradition, it can cause tension. Certain unkind words can get exchanged. Also certain unkind bricks, bottles, and paintballs.

To prevent this sort of secterian trouble, all parades--routes, numbers, decorations, etc-- have to be cleared by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. One of their cheif tasks is arbitrating disputes between marching organizations and neighborhood associations.

Now, as Northern Ireland gears up for another marching season, marchers and neighborhoods are at the negotiating tables again. A longstanding conflict in Drumcree is about to go to mediation, where there's a chance the various parties can come to an agreement without the Parades Commission having to arbitrate.

Would that we could be so concilatory on this side of the pond. Washington DC's annual FolkLife festival begins today, and Northern Ireland is one of the three focuses of this year's festivities. Dancers, cooks, artisans and historians from all over Ulster have been invited across the pond to share their culture and traditions with the residents and visitors of our nation's capital.

Among the visitors are representetives from the Orange Order, who are going to be running a display. Congressman Eliot Engel of New York objects. He wrote a letter to the Smithsonian (the event's sponsor) asking them to ban the Orangemen because they're 'well known for violently anti-Catholic rhetoric and actions.'

Now, I hold no illusions about the Orangemen. I'm not one of those people who holds them entirely blameless for the problems that have happened during their marches. I know they're not merely victims of big, mean, Brit-hating Nationalists who are trying to oppress their cultural expression. But neither do I believe that they're all loyalist paramilitaries in disguise who are trying to chase the Catholic population out of Ulster.

Banning them from the folklife festival would only help to enforce Irish America's preconceptions about Northern Ireland-- that the nationalists are Always Right and the unionists are Always Wrong, and that the Republic of Ireland has a manifest destiny to control the entire island.

The Smithsonian seems to be ignoring Engel's objection. Good for them. I believe they should give the Orangemen a chance to show DC what they do and why they do it. Let them engage in--gasp!--dialogue. The ocean between America and Northern Ireland has allowed a great many uninformed opinions about the Irish Question to flourish here. The militant/pro-IRA rhetoric faded somewhat in the wake of 9/11, but people so distant from the violence and strife the conflict has bred have no business romanticizing it.

If the point of the Folklife festival is education, then it's absolutely imperetive that the Orangemen, Ulster-Scots, and unionism as a whole be represented. Irish/Nationalist and Gaelic traditions are deeply rooted into Irish American culture. We stand to learn a lot more from those in Northern Ireland whose stories we don't hear than we do from those whose stories we've allowed to inform our biases.

I'm going to go to the celtic music concerts. I'm going to go watch the Gaelic Football display, stop by the Irish Language table, and watch the textiles artist embroider an Irish dance costume. But I also intend to make a point of visiting the Orange Order's display and check out the Rugby demonstration. The Smithsonian Institution is bringing this even to us for free, and I mean to take full advantage of all it has to offer.

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