What a Protestant Parade Reveals About Theresa May's New Partners

Northern Ireland’s July 12 celebration, known for provoking violence, helps explain the small party that has catapulted to national prominence.

Participants in an Orange Order parade march past a bonfire pyre in Portadown, Northern Ireland.
Participants in an Orange Order parade march past a bonfire pyre in Portadown, Northern Ireland. (Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters)

Northern Ireland’s Twelfth of July parades will be watched with unusual care from London this year. Celebrating the central national holiday of Northern Ireland’s Protestants, the parades—known for their long history of provoking communal violence—typically pass unnoticed in the rest of the United Kingdom. But this year, Prime Minister Theresa May is reliant on the largest Northern Irish Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to govern. Against this political backdrop, the parades stand to reveal a lot about the concerns of Northern Ireland’s Protestants, who, for the first time in two decades, are the U.K.’s kingmakers.

Across Northern Ireland, Protestants celebrate the Twelfth, as it’s known, with large parades featuring the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization, and Protestant marching bands. Tens of thousands of people march down streets lined with cheering crowds to commemorate the victory of a Protestant king, William III, over a Catholic king, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Carrying resplendent displays of flags and banners, the paraders step for miles to the thunderous sound of flutes and drums. For many Protestants, these parades are a cherished tradition; an embodiment of their culture, history, and values; and a high point of the year. The Twelfth is the biggest parading day, but it is far from the only one. Protestant organizations perform nearly 3,000 parades annually. (Catholics have a far smaller parading tradition, some of which are similarly contentious.) They are generally joyous, boisterous street celebrations, full of singing, drinking, and cheering.

But not everyone cheers as the parades pass by. For Northern Ireland’s Catholic community, the Twelfth isn’t a celebration, but a provocation. Many Catholics see the parades as triumphalist braggadocio by Protestant supremacist organizations. They see anti-Catholic bigots taking over public spaces, playing chauvinistic tunes (“Oh give me a home / Where there’s no Pope of Rome,” begins one popular song) and displaying the emblems of loyalist paramilitaries that terrorized Catholics for decades. Rather than cheer the parades when they pass their homes, many Catholics protest them. Keeping paraders and protesters apart often requires large police operations, yet confrontations have still led to riots at parades throughout their history, including in 2012, 2013, and 2015.

Conflicts over parades are one of the outstanding issues of the Northern Irish conflict. Though the 30-year period of violence that killed over 3,600 people—euphemistically called the Troubles—formally ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, conflict between mostly-Protestant Unionists, who wish to remain in the U.K., and mostly-Catholic Nationalists, who wish to unite with Ireland, continues. Today, cultural issues, such as parades, flags, and language, remain major sources of tension between the two sides. A quarrel between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the largest Catholic party, over state support for the Irish language was a principal reason the two parties failed to reach an agreement to restore the devolved provincial government in early July 2017.

In many ways, parades and other issues of cultural representation highlight what’s at stake in the conflict as a whole. Parading disputes, like the conflict in general, represent a fundamental disagreement between two nationalities about identity, territory, belonging, and control. At issue in fights over parades, therefore, is much more than whether or not a group of people walk down the road. Even the uncontested parades (over 80 percent of the total last year) touch on the sensitive central question in Northern Irish politics: Who should rule this land, the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland? The paraders’ answer—the U.K.—clashes with the aspirations of many Catholics, who seek a united Ireland, finally free of Britain’s control. Fundamentally, conflicts over parades are conflicts over the national character of the state and public space. Should this state, this city, this town, this neighborhood, even this street reflect the culture, values, interests, and desires of Protestants or Catholics? These questions will only gain salience as Brexit erases the U.K. and Ireland’s shared EU membership, and raises the possibility of restoring an enforced border between the two countries.

This zero-sum worldview fuels the politics of Northern Ireland, and the DUP is very much a product and producer of the us-or-them political culture. Their Protestant voters feel under siege, and any gain made by Catholics is experienced as a loss for them. Take the Protestant experience of the peace process. The negotiations that successfully ended the Troubles are hailed worldwide as a signal diplomatic achievement, but for many local Protestants it feels like an unrelenting defeat. Polls show that Protestants believe that peace has benefited Catholics more than them, which has led to increasing disenchantment with the agreement. Many feel that Catholics are using their political power to push any sense of Britishness off the island. Protesting parades and imposing restrictions on them are understood as a primary way that Catholics are chipping away at Protestant and British life in the province. This helps explains why the defense of parades and other cultural issues often dominate Protestant politics in Northern Ireland.

The DUP is the staunchest defender of parades and other symbols of Protestant culture. The party criticizes any restrictions placed on parades, and is opposed to the existence of the government body that makes these decisions. A recent survey of party members shows that 58 percent believe that parades should be able to go wherever they please, irrespective of the wishes of the local community. One-third of party members themselves belong to the Orange Order, and over half of DUP elected officials are members of the organization, including a majority of the ten Members of Parliament currently propping up the Conservatives.

The DUP’s move into the center of British political life has exposed their vision of Britishness to new scrutiny. The 2017 election has forced the mainland British public, long ignorant of their fellow citizens across the Irish Sea, to confront the politics of a community that sees itself as the frontline guardians of British heritage. Since the DUP-Conservative pact, the confrontational Britishness displayed by both parades and the DUP has been widely criticized by Brits who embrace an inclusive sense of their national identity, even after Brexit. A central irony of contemporary British politics is that the people and party most obsessively committed to preserving the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are entirely out of step with the rest of the union’s political culture. The DUP’s stout defense of parades and the identity they represent reveals that it is principally a parochial party, concerned with local, rather than national, issues, and holding a local, rather than national, sense of the nation’s identity. This has long been true, but on this year’s Twelfth, its narrow vision will be on parade with the whole country watching.