16 February 2006

Frazer and Ahern march to the same tune

Daily Ireland

Jude Collins

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usFor harassed Dublin drivers, it's probably the last thing they need, but inside the next couple of weeks the capital's main thoroughfare will be blocked off to facilitate the sound of marching feet on two separate occasions. Both events will draw a considerable number of onlookers, both events will feature heavily on the television news, and both will evoke strong feelings North and South.
The first, to take place later this month, will be organised by Willie Frazer. Like many people in the North of Ireland, Willie lost relatives during the Troubles and this has motivated him to organise some 1,000 unionists on a march through O'Connell Street and up to the gates of Leinster House for a rally. He hopes Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, can be persuaded to take part.
The march, Willie says, is to commemorate victims of Northern violence, and relatives and friends of all victims are welcome. But since Ulster and Union flags will be carried and a couple of Orange bands will lead the march, it's a safe bet that Pat Finucane family members or Bloody Sunday victims' relatives will not be part of the parade.
Willie argues that his march should be allowed to take place, since the South claims to be a democracy; besides, the southern state needs to know that northern unionists resent the South's meddling in their affairs. Those opposed to the Frazer march argue that it is selective about the kind of victim it is prepared to commemorate, it will be led by bands from an anti-Catholic organisation, and that its sole aim will be to irritate and intimidate.
People will make up their own mind which side has the better of the argument, but certainly negative southern reaction so far shows a selective sense of outrage.
When similar marches occurred in places like Portadown and Bellaghy and the Lower Ormeau, the people of the South tended to shrug and wonder aloud why northern nationalists couldn't manage to live and let live – sure it'd all be over in 20 minutes.
Now that a similar march is scheduled for Dublin, the phone-ins are hopping with the sound of angry voices denouncing the idea of Orange bigots marching where they're not wanted.
Instructive or what? When agitation and conflict are happening ‘up there', it's easy to urge sweet reasonableness in response. When the drums come thudding up to your own door, what looked in the distance like an interesting cultural custom becomes alarmingly like a case of coat-trailing.
The second march will be at Easter and will involve some 2,000 soldiers of the Irish army marching past the GPO. This will be organised by Bertie Ahern and will aim to commemorate the sacrifice of those who led the 1916 Rising. The Fianna Fáil leader believes that the events of that year belong to no single group or party, and so he has decreed that a military parade, left dormant for decades, be resumed.
Again, the planning for this march has provoked differing responses.
Some agree with the Taoiseach that the nation owes a debt to the men whose sacrifice led to the creation of the southern state. Others, like the soft-spoken Senator, David Norris, argue that to honour these men is dangerous, since they engaged in violence and they might provide a bad example for others.
On the face of it, the two marches have little in common, other than happening along O' Connell Street. Willie says he's concerned to honour unionist victims of republican paramilitarism and wishes to demonstrate the depth of unionist feeling. Bertie says he's concerned to honour republican victims of British militarism and wishes to demonstrate the depth of nationalist feeling. Couldn't get much more opposite than that.
But look a bit closer and more important similarities start to show.
Willie Frazer's feelings for what he calls ‘innocent relatives' is probably genuine, particularly since he would include himself among them. But if you have innocent relatives, then there must be such a thing as guilty relatives, and in Willie's book, that's the families of people who were in some way involved with republicanism and were shot dead by the British security forces. They got what they deserved.
And when the Orange bands go thudding down O'Connell Street it will be to drive home that got-what-was-coming-to-them sub-text as much as it will be a commemoration of unionists killed during the 30-year Northern conflict.
There's a sub-text to Bertie's Easter parade as well. On the face of it, it's a formal salute on the 90th anniversary of 1916 to those who fought and gave their lives all those years ago. Who could quarrel with that except maybe the peace-loving Senator Norris? But, of course, Bertie didn't get Charlie Haughey's ‘most cunning, devious', etc, description without having earned it. In this case, like Willie Frazer, there's no doubt a part of Bertie that is sincere: he does want to celebrate the sacrifice of Pádraig Pearse and his followers.
But there's another part of him that, like Willie Frazer, wants to draw distinctions. Willie wants to distinguish between victims, Bertie wants to distinguish between combatants.
In particular, the Taoiseach wants to distinguish between the republican violence in pursuit of political ends that characterised 1916 and the years that followed, and republican violence in pursuit of political ends in the North that characterised the early 1970s and the years that followed.
Bertie would have liked my late mother-in-law. Upset by yet another Northern headline, she would sometimes sigh and say “Ah, the old IRA – now they were nice”.
But even as he's keen to break any suggestion of a thread running from 1916 to present-day politics, Bertie is aware that something profound is happening throughout Ireland, and if he and his party don't take account of it they could pay a heavy price, starting in the next election.
Bertie knows, just as Enda Kenny knows, and Pat Rabbitte knows, and Mark Durkan knows, that there is a tide of nationalist sentiment rising throughout this island, one that as recently as ten years ago would have been unthinkable, and that shows no sign of subsiding.
Bertie/Enda/Pat/Mark, and their allies in the media, have done and continue to do as much as they can to turn it back, but it's becoming increasingly obvious the damned thing's got too big.
And that's the sub-text of Bertie's planned parade on O' Connell Street this Easter. On the face of it, Bertie, like Willie, is doing no more than honouring those who gave their lives in an honourable cause. But behind the scenes of official celebration, a sense of suppressed consternation prevails. Bertie knows that Fianna Fáil has a choice.
It either learns to ride this wave of nationalism that is coming, or it drowns. What looks like an O'Connell Street saluting stand is really a FF surf-board.

Jude Collins is an academic, writer and broadcaster. His latest novel is Leave of Absence (TownHouse, £6.99; €9.99)

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