Parades can act as a demonstration of religious faith and community that allow groups to celebrate their tradition and cultural heritage. In Northern Ireland, parades play a significant role in the expression of identity across communities, most notably for the group of unionist organisations collectively known as the Loyal Orders. For these groups, parading is an annual commemoration of Protestant history and religion in Ireland. Parades, with loud, long marches of people, flags and other historical symbols, continue to be a point of contention between the Protestant/Unionist and Catholic/Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland; what is seen as celebratory to some can be interpreted as triumphalist to another. Since the 18th century, the parading tradition has played a religious and political role in society.

The traditional parading season in Northern Ireland takes place from April to August. It mainly sees parades by the Loyal Order Protestant fraternities, such as the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Catholic fraternities like the Ancient Order of Hibernians parade less frequently, with their main parades being on Saint Patrick’s Day and Easter.

The Protestant Orange Order (formed in 1795) is the most active parading group, with its biggest parade on 12th July, known as “the Twelfth”, commemorating the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, where the last British Catholic monarch King James II was defeated by the Protestant King William of Orange (from whom the Orange Order derives its name). Orangemen regard King William as the man who secured Protestant ascendancy or dominance in Northern Ireland and they annually celebrate this victory of past generations with parades of spectacle. For many Catholics, the parades surrounding the Twelfth (and other Unionist/Loyalist parades) are viewed as highly provocative and triumphalist, as the loud marches are interpreted as a celebration of Catholic defeat rather than Protestant victory.

The parades are highly symbolic; the outfits worn, music played and flags carried are valued cultural tokens that express the Protestant/Unionist identity. Such outright displays of national identity can be seen by other parts of the community as an offensive act of aggression or hostility. One reason for this is the flags and banners that are carried during the parades. Along with the Union Jack, on display are banners associated with Loyalism, sometimes of paramilitary groups. These symbols represent the Unionist/Loyalist’s wish for Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom, whereas the Nationalist wish is to achieve a closer relationship with the Republic of Ireland. Thus, a parading of one’s cultural heritage can be interpreted as a threat to others’ national identity and political aspirations. This can be amplified during the parading season, which brings thousands to the streets across Northern Ireland.

The soundtrack to the parades are the songs, drums and flutes of the brass bands who join the marchers on their route. Music holds huge cultural significance for its ability to tell stories of the past and celebrate tradition. A loud disturbance for those not involved however, the choice of music at parades has been another issue of tension between communities. Songs like The Sash (My Father Wore), which by many is regarded as sectarian, has a highly provocative effect, especially when played in places like in front of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church in Belfast in July 2013.

As a result of community divisions, parading in the past has been costly to Northern Ireland in terms of policing and damage, and has led to the injury and death as a consequence of the violence which has ensued in sensitive areas like Drumcree. The annual parade in the town of Portadown, held the Sunday before the Twelfth, has caused violent clashes and disturbance since the 19th century, the worst years being in the 1970s and 1980s. Having walked the route to and from Drumcree Church since 1807, the Orange Order insist on their right to continue this tradition, although nowadays this route is inhabited mainly by Catholics. Here and in many other areas affected by this issue, Nationalists have formed residents’ groups, in order to work towards an end of parading routes that go through their populated areas.

In Portadown in July 1995, 10,000 Orangemen and their supporters had gathered but were stopped from walking on Garvaghy Road (mainly inhabited by Catholics). After violent clashes with the police and Nationalists, Unionist politicians Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) held a rally at Drumcree, unsuccessfully trying to push through the security line before they were taken away by the police. However, a compromise was reached to let the Orange parade continue down Garvaghy Road without music  —  at the head of the parade were Trimble and Paisley. While Unionists felt that Trimble was ”sticking up for them” and elected him as the leader of the UUP shortly afterwards, Nationalists, on the other hand, felt abandoned by both politicians and the police force, the RUC, who had the authority over parade regulations at the time.

The following years saw more violence during Drumcree parades, with several people being killed by Loyalist paramilitaries, the most tragic incident happening in 1998 when three young boys died after their house was firebombed by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Despite police requests, some Loyalist bands kept playing music while parading past the boys’ grandmother’s house the days after the murders (see David McKittrick et al, Lost Lives, Mainstream Publishing, 2008, p. 1435). An intractable conviction like this shows the difficulty of finding a solution for the parading dispute when each side fails to fully engage with the experiences of the other.

Drumcree became the catalyst for reform in parades and their regulations. Suggestions for the regulation of potentially contentious parades were made in the North Report in 1997. The report understood that “the parades issue is a microcosm of the political problems of Northern Ireland”. It wrote that still, recent clashes at marches show that “Northern Ireland remains divided, too often marked by misunderstanding, mistrust and fear”. The report led to the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 and the establishment of the Parades Commission, a ‘quasi-judicial non-departmental body’, consisting of seven members, appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland:

“This Act recognises the importance of individuals rights, both to march and to protest against marches, and stresses the need for accommodation and tolerance at a local level. However, in situations where local agreement cannot be reached, the Act now transfers responsibility from the RUC to the Parades Commission, to take decisions concerning the imposition of conditions and the re-routing of contentious parades. The police will however liaise with the Parades Commission, and will still retain the power to take necessary steps on the day to preserve public order if need be.” (North Review)

With the aim of facilitating a greater understanding between communities through dialogue, peacefully accommodating parades and monitoring those which may be more contentious, the Commission was to prioritise communication and cooperation. Carefully navigating regulations which could antagonise relations between communities, the Commission wished to minimise the perception of threat felt by parades, and ensure that parades were a cultural and religious expression of identity, not necessarily a political one. For example, paramilitary-style clothing could not be worn and only hymn tunes could be played near ‘sensitive locations’ such as places of worship near interface areas or areas with the majority of residents being of another tradition.

Since its establishment, the Parades Commission has been criticised by Unionists/Loyalists that their tradition of parades is disproportionately affected by regulations. The Orange Order still refuses to recognise its absolute authority, and the Grand Lodge of the order has a policy of non-engagement with the Commission for its “unnecessary restrictions”. Due to this opposition, Sinn Féin and the DUP at Hillsborough in 2010 agreed on the establishment of a “Public Assemblies, Parades & Protests Body” to replace the Parades Commission and extend what is considered a ‘public assembly’ to beyond just parades. This body, however, was also rejected by the Orange Order and questioned by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for its restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly; the body never became law. While Nationalists/Republicans seem more willing to engage with the Parades Commission, this engagement is regarded by some Unionists as a coordinated ”demonisation of [Unionist] culture, as manifested in our parading tradition” (former DUP leader Peter Robinson, 2014). Indeed, the Orange Order’s Grand Master, Edward Stevenson, views the situation as a “cultural war” by Republicans waged “to erode all symbols of Britishness”.

There are other factors that contribute to recurring violence during the parading season. The Twelfth is preceded by a night of street parties and bonfires known as the “Eleventh Night”, historically lit to guide the victorious King William to his landing point of Carrickfergus Castle in 1690. Tall towers of wooden pallets are built into bonfires across neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland. When symbols significant to nationalism/Catholicism or marginalised communities are burnt on the bonfires, tensions are escalated and exacerbated by the parades of the following day. Although violence, riots and anti-social behaviour has long been a feature of Eleventh Night — such as the throwing of bricks or even petrol bombs — incidents on Eleventh Night have been on the decline since 2015. With greater cooperation and dialogue between communities, less tensions are able to spill over to the following day.

In 2013, Frances Nolan of the Parades Commission told The Impartial Reporter of the violence of marching season that”there are times of despair, times when you feel that nothing’s moved on; that it’s Groundhog Day.” But in recent years, the Commission has been able to rule less and less parades as ‘sensitive’ (meaning they have the potential to cause community concern and conflict), and now the Order and other fraternities hold many hundreds of parades every year that pass without incident. In the year of 2018-19, of the 4,229 parade notifications received, just 183 were considered sensitive, compared to the 571 of 5,030 parades in the year 2015-16 or 619 of the 5,074 parades notified to the Parades Commission for 2014-15.

Of the 4,229 parades that publicly took place in Northern Ireland between 2018 and 2019, almost 60% were marked as Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist and less than 3% were Catholic/Republican/Nationalist, but almost 40% were listed as ‘other’ by the Parades Commission. These include charity, civic, rural, sporting and church events, and show the importance of parades to Northern Irish culture across communities. The parades held for St Patrick’s Day have become less sectarian in recent years, as have marches for youth organisations, Remembrance Sunday and the celebratory Lord Mayor’s Parade. Similarly, the Belfast Pride parade has been reported as one of the “few genuinely cross-community events in Northern Ireland, transcending barriers between Protestants and Catholics”. Parading has increasingly become a cultural expression of what it is to be Northern Irish, rather than a sectarian event.

Research by Barbara ZEDLER and Maeve McTAGGART.

Photo credit: Parade in Stewartstown, County Tyrone; Creator: H. Allison & Co. Photographers; Date: c.1905; Description: March with banner in Stewartstown, County Tyrone. PRONI Ref: D2886/W/Portrait/16

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