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Irony may overcome history in Northern Ireland


By Richard Blystone
CNN Senior Correspondent

July 17, 1998
Web posted at: 1:02 p.m. EDT (1702 GMT)

Editor's note: Richard Blystone wrote these reflections for CNN Interactive after covering the standoff between Protestant marchers and British troops in Portadown, and the funeral for three boys killed in a firebombing.

In this story:

Violence erupted Monday night in Drumcree, N. Ireland   

DRUMCREE, Northern Ireland (CNN) -- It looked, one reporter said, like "Ivanhoe" meets "Apocalypse Now."

A small, green field, like one you'd see in a museum model of the Battle of Hastings.

On one side: rattling drums, tents, campfires and banners flying, along with snack vans and children in strollers. And once, from under a tree, the sound of a flute playing Beethoven's "Für Elise."

A few yards away: the front line. No archers, but bravehearts fortified with beer, hurling fireworks and obscenities and firing slingshots across the Army's newly dug moat and the field of razor wire.

On the other side: all the might of a modern army, including video helicopters, black body armor and balaclavas for the police (lest their fellow Protestants recognize them and make threats or burn them out of their homes -- as happened to 75 of their number over the week).

And behind them, British paratroopers, wearing camouflage and make-my-day faces, hated by the people they are shielding. Their regiment is blamed for the deaths of 13 Catholic demonstrators on Londonderry's "Bloody Sunday" in 1972.

Marching a seasonal thing, like mosquitos

Orangemen marched Monday in Drumcree, N. Ireland   

"It's our heritage," says a Protestant truck driver lounging on a blanket. He thinks he's talking only about his reason for being there, but inadvertently he's gotten it right.

The history of mayhem at marching season goes back two centuries, and every summer it comes back, like mosquitos and heat stroke.

For many, many Catholics, nationalist or not, marching season is a misery. And many who can afford to just leave.

In times past, the marchers have been a sneering, swaggering, bullying, intimidating invasion. Drums the size of truck wheels boom out, "We rule this place and we always will. Look out, shut up, get lost."

In recent years, the authorities have put a lid on most of that, and the parades generally fall silent passing Catholic homes. But the season and the drinking always bring disorder and attacks on Catholics.

Protestant paraders claim with some justice that the Catholics nowadays have to get up pretty early to get annoyed at the marches. At Portadown, they could have turned their heads for 15 minutes and the parade would have passed.

The sectarian hatreds feed on each other, need each other, an Irish Republic columnist observed. The worst thing the Catholics could do to the Orangemen would be to ignore them, or to laugh at their antiquated ways. But they don't. Sectarian unity requires a grievance, and an enemy.

Clinging to the image of a black bowler hat

At first glance, the Orangemen look like stern counterfeit Englishmen: black suits, black bowler hats, furled umbrellas. They look faintly ridiculous to the Protestant middle class and the youth who are opting out of their forefathers' ways.

The brethren no longer are the men who hand out jobs and patronage. The Protestant majority, once 2-to-1, is slipping badly. And the union they cling to, the land they defended in World War II while the Irish Free State stood aloof, is sick to death of them.

They might be a race unto themselves: straightforward, charmless and blarney-free. They were never bred for the sweet talk of compromise. At the talks this spring, one official marveled, "They've never even learned to be insincere."

At ease, they are friendly and likeable, but these days they are seldom at ease.

And they can't understand why the world doesn't see things their way.

Imagine yourself as one of those teetotal Orange deacons, girded in black worsted and rectitude, looking down from the church on the heights. Seeing your police cousins arrayed against you. Seeing your cause hijacked by drunken hoodlums ... and trivialized.

The nadir of this year's event may have been the evening when two male streakers, pursued by cheers and press photographers, ran through the crowd and capered about at the barrier.

These brethren are losing and they know it. That's what makes the marches so desperately important.

Non-committal neighbors with pent-up courtesy

Three boys who died in a firebomb attack were buried Tuesday   

Many of Northern Ireland's Protestants are "Loyalists" in the same sense so many on both sides of the divide are Christian. To them, as a Presbyterian minister said Sunday, God "has become so small that he's nothing more than a supporter of their side."

It took a week of rioting and the deaths of three children before the Protestant clergy stood up and started pointing to principles besides the right to march. Ones like: "Turn the other cheek," "Love your enemy," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

On the buses, on the roads, the pent-up courtesy of the Northern Irish bursts out. It might be a Catholic who a Protestant's letting out of a side road into heavy traffic, but they do it anyway.

In quiet times, knowing each other's tribes by their accents, they chat amiably about shows and sports, or the weather that is their shared curse. But never about anything that really counts. That wouldn't work.

They worked through mediators during the political negotiations; instead of advancing ideas, they waited for governments to put up plans they could blame and disown if they got cold feet.

The undercurrent of irony

With all that's at stake politically in Northern Ireland, this year of all years would have been an occasion for each side to take special account of the other's sensitivities surrounding the marches.

In Londonderry this month, we watched a Catholic nationalist member of Parliament and a hard-line Protestant mayor, who clearly detested each other, working stiffly but effectively together for economic development.

And last Monday, the main day of the Orange marches, may well turn out to have been a different kind of "settling day" from that threatened by the agreement-hating Protestant, the Rev. Ian Paisley.

The irony is that by feeding the discord and failing, those who want to bring down the new system may have strengthened it.

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