The Irish News – 21 May 2012
The “Balmoral Review” at Ormeau Park on Saturday was billed as the first in the Decade of Centenaries. It marked a century since the original Balmoral Review, when 200,000 were addressed by Edward Carson during the campaign against Home Rule.
Saturday’s Ormeau Park demonstration was also impressive with 10,000 marchers, banners, bands and Orangemen. Smartly dressed UDA men in dark green blazers and UVF men in period dress or neat suits joined in.
The demonstration passed peacefully through Belfast without significant incident. A Joint Unionist Centenary Committee, representing Unionist and Loyalist organizations including Belfast Grand Orange Lodge organized the event. It was vital that it passed peacefully as other contentious demonstrations are to follow.
Reports of loyalist participation alongside Orangemen and Apprentice Boys suggested a unique, if underplayed, demonstration. The Orange Order previously seemed embarrassed at the prospect of loyalists promoting peace. The TUV’s Jim Allister still seems angry at the prospect of former UVF prisoners sharing experiences of conflict transformation in Israel.
As I approached the demonstration I saw what from a distance looked like the Boys Brigade (BB) youth organization wearing ceremonial white haversacks on parade. As I moved closer I realized it was men parading in suits and white sashes.
The sashes had blue and red stripes with the words, “Ulster Protestant Volunteer Division” alongside a Red Hand. The last time I observed UPV Divisions on parade wearing similar sashes, was around 1968 when UPV men and women passed Belfast City Hall in formation.
They then operated under the auspices of the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) under chairman Rev Ian Paisley. I had an eerie feeling of being back 50 years rather than 100.
We were standing literally yards from Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church where a monument stands dedicated to the memory of “Lord Carson and his Ulster Volunteer Force”. It was placed there by UPV’s parent body, the UCDC.
But surely the UPV went out of existence after some members were convicted of firearms offensives and one died in the wake of an attempted bombing of an electricity substation in the Irish Republic?
One sash wearing man confirmed that the UPV still held church and other parades. But a nearby loyalist suggested all was not as it seemed so I approached another UPV sash wearer, “Are you really the UPV?” His hesitant answer suggested that this was not the original UPV.
A few yards away a convivial carnival atmosphere prevailed with bouncy castles and swings for children. A religious service with regimental style flags appeared to be generally ignored.
That loyalists should participate alongside the Orange Order was a potentially positive and unexpected development. Many Orangemen, perhaps understandably, tend to prefer distancing themselves even from former paramilitaries.
But loyalists played a crucial role in the peace process and have been winding down their organizations, although not without difficulties, for some time. Some looked, often in vain, for support from the wider community hoping that the Orange Order and Unionist Parties might help facilitate change.
On Saturday I felt encouraged to see Mike Nesbitt UUP leader and his predecessor Tom Elliott giving unstinted support. This can’t have been easy because loyalists, like republicans, have done terrible things. But as David Trimble said, because people have a past should not mean they have no future.
Despite Jim Allister’s criticisms the UVF are following a scheme ACT (Action for Community Transformation) aimed at reaching a better future for themselves and others. Frankie Gallagher of the UDA aligned UPRG was sporting a tie with the words “Ulster Defense Union” (UDU). The UDU also represents a project of civilianization and could become an Old Comrades Association.
One thing strikes me. Our centenary “celebrations” should not only seek inclusivity but should also acknowledge our victims. The events of a century ago left a legacy of thousands of victims who must surely also be acknowledged.
Some were paramilitaries. Jackie McDonald told of many who were teenagers during the conflict but who today still suffer unspeakable consequences. There are differences between them and innocent victims but broadly speaking we all contributed to the mayhem that has bubbled up at times throughout the century.
To humbly apologize and offer hands of friendship is the least we can do if the Decade of Centenaries is to mean anything significant. The Combined Loyalist Military Command stated in 1994, “Let us resolve to respect our differing views of freedom, culture and aspiration and never again permit our political circumstances to degenerate into bloody warfare”. Perhaps all our centenary demonstrations should include such an Act of Dedication.