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Ireland with Simon Reeves - Copyright BBC

Ireland with Simon Reeve

Ireland with Simon Reeve explores the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in a new two-part series for BBC Two.

About the series

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland form one of the most beautiful islands in the world: a place steeped in history, culture and belief, but one with a complex and troubled past.

To see more about this series, you can take a look at the BBC programme page.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

A clash of rights: Parading in Northern Ireland

What is the background to the North Belfast parading dispute?

During ‘Ireland with Simon Reeve’, Simon follows the Pride of Ardoyne band as they parade as part of the 12 July celebrations. However on the return leg of the journey, Simon finds himself in the middle of a riot after the parade is stopped by the police as it approaches a predominantly Catholic area.

What is the background to this controversy and these shocking scenes? Michael Bower from The Open University explains the context of the Ardoyne parading dispute.

A painting of William III of England - William of Orange

William III - William of Orange

The Orange Order is a Protestant institution that was formed in 1798 to commemorate the defeat of the Catholic King James II by the Protestant William of Orange in the period 1688 to 1691. English Protestants had objected to James II’s Catholic policies and his support for the French King Louis XIV. They appealed to the Dutch William of Orange, an opponent of Louis, to help them depose James, which he did when he invaded England in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. The island of Ireland provided the backdrop for the battle between Williamite and Jacobite forces as James II tried to regain the throne with the help of French and loyal Irish forces. Despite not having a critical outcome in the war (it continued for over a year afterwards), the “Battle of the Boyne” in July 1690 became seen as a prominent victory for William as James II personally fled Ireland on the back of this defeat.

The victory of William over James II at the Boyne Valley, outside the town of Drogheda in the present day Republic of Ireland, is celebrated every year on 12 July by many Northern Irish Protestants. Known simply as the ‘Twelfth’, the day is marked by parades across Northern Ireland by Orange Order Lodges (local branches) and independent flute, pipe and brass bands. A smaller number of parades do occur in the Republic of Ireland, across the UK and in countries which have a large Ulster Protestant diaspora such as Canada and New Zealand. A number of Orange Lodges also exist in Africa, where the formation of Orange Lodges was likely influenced by Ulster Protestant missionaries or stationed soldiers. 

The Orange Order is both a strongly religious and British patriotic organisation. As well as celebrating the Protestant faith it is unashamedly unionist, being fully committed to the continuation of Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom. The “Twelfth” is therefore considered a celebration of both Protestantism and Britishness.

“He should strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome and other Non-Reformed faiths, and scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwise) any act or ceremony of Roman Catholic or other non-Reformed Worship”

The prominent displays of Protestantism and Britishness displayed on the “Twelfth” and across the “marching season” throughout the summer has, at times, led to conflict with some who identify themselves as Catholic and Irish. Some Orange Order parades have traditionally passed through areas which would be considered to have a majority Nationalist population. At times residents groups in these areas have objected to the parades on the basis that the Orange Order is a sectarian organisation and that the parades cause significant disruption to local residents. Some nationalists argue that the Orange Order is not simply a Protestant organisation, but an anti-Catholic one, citing one criterion for membership of the Order  as being:

Anti-orange Order Sign in Rasharkin

Anti-orange Order Sign in Rasharkin

Up until 1998, the Northern Irish police force (then known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC) played an adjudication role in whether or not a parade was allowed to walk through an area. This put the RUC directly in the firing line from the side who perceived themselves to be the most aggrieved.

In order to provide independent mediation and adjudication on parading in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Parades Commission  was formed in 1998. Anyone intending to organise a public procession (not just applicable to Orange Order parades), or a related protest meeting, must notify the Parades Commission and abide by the resulting determination. Violation of a Parades Commission determination is considered an offence and is the responsibility of the police to enforce. 

The Ardoyne interface and the Ligoniel Orange Lodges

Aside from the costs of the damage from the public disturbance on “the Twelfth”, a constant police presence is now maintained at the protest camp at a cost of around £330,000 per month

On the “Twelfth” in Belfast, Orange Lodges and the bands that accompany them, parade from their local areas in the morning and feed into the main parade in Belfast City Centre. The Orange Lodges and bands then make their way to “the field” for an outdoor religious service, a picnic and festival activities for them to enjoy with their families. Later in the afternoon, the parade sets out on its homeward journey, with the Orange Lodges and bands filtering back to their local areas.

One of the most contentious parading routes of the day is in North Belfast and involves the Ligoniel Orange Lodges. North Belfast is a patchwork of what are considered to be clearly defined Protestant and Catholic communities, often divided by so-called “peace walls” which were erected to provide security to residents living on community interfaces. North Belfast is an area which saw some of the worst elements of violence in the period between 1969 and 1998 commonly known as “the Troubles”; accounting for about 20% of those killed in Northern Ireland during this time.

The Ligoniel Orange parade runs from the Ligoniel area in the north of the city, down the Crumlin, Woodvale and Shankill Roads before meeting up with the main parade in Belfast city centre. The parade returns home via the same route. The most contentious part of the route is a 300 yard stretch which passes by the mainly nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast, approaching the junction of the Crumlin and Woodvale Roads. Nationalist residents have complained about feeling penned into the area by the parade and exposed to what they perceive to be an overt display of sectarianism. Some bands and parade supporters have previously displayed paraphernalia related to loyalist paramilitary groups which is considered to be particularly offensive.

Up until 2013, the Parades Commission had allowed the parade to follow its traditional route past Ardoyne on both the outward and return routes, at times with certain conditions imposed such as not being allowed to play music, restricting the number of supporters allowed to follow the parade and enforcing strict timings on when it will take place. However, this often led to serious eruptions of rioting after the return parade, mainly by those associating themselves with the cause of local nationalist residents.

In 2013  the Parades Commission ruled that the parade was allowed to complete its onward journey into Belfast city centre in the morning, but that it would be stopped from completing the return leg towards Ligoniel before it reached the Ardoyne area. This provoked a furious response from the Orange Order, unionist politicians and many who consider themselves to be part of the wider unionist or loyalist community.

The Parades Commission made a similar determination in 2014 and 2015. On both occasions severe rioting by loyalists has occurred at the police blockade on the Woodvale Road. A protest camp has been established at the interface by supporters of the parade since July 2013, who claim they will maintain their presence there until the parade is allowed to “return home”. Regular attempts are made to complete the parade but each time it is prevented from doing so by the police. This standoff has become the focal point for loyalist dissatisfaction with their perception of how the “peace process” has delivered for their community, particularly as the Parades Commission ruling occurred eight months after a decision to reduce the number of days that the Union flag flew over Belfast City Hall .

Aside from the costs of the damage from the public disturbance on “the Twelfth”, a constant police presence is now maintained at the protest camp at a cost of around £330,000 per month . Many police officers have been injured as a result of the violence that has occurred here almost every July over the last decade.

A clash of rights

An orange banner showing the signing of the Ulster Covenant

An orange banner showing the signing of the Ulster Covenant

Ultimately the Ardoyne parading issue can be seen as a clash of rights between two very distinct groups within Northern Irish society. On one side, those parading claim that they have a right to freedom of assembly and to cultural expression. On the other side, nationalist residents claim that they have a right to freedom from intimidation and to go about their lives without disruption. Attempts at mediation and dialogue between both sides have so far failed. The situation is further complicated by both sides of the dispute being coalitions of groups which have different agendas. The pro-parade side is made up of a mixture of the Orange Order, Unionist political groups and community-based loyalist groupings. The nationalist side is made up of two residents groups, one perceived to be more closely aligned with Sinn Féin, and one perceived to be more closely aligned to anti-peace process nationalist groups. Unionist politicians have consistently called for the Parades Commission to be disbanded but any attempt to create a mediation and/or arbitration process which commands greater community support has failed.

It is important to note that very few Orange Order parades are deemed to be contentious. Only 6% of parade applications for the 2015 “Twelfth” festivities were considered to be sensitive by the Parades Commission. The return leg for the Ligoniel lodges has been the only Orange Order parade which has witnessed significant violence in recent years, something that was much more common occurrence in the past.

The city of Derry/Londonderry has been held up as a model of good practice for developing local solutions to parading disputes. Local loyal orders (including the Orange Order), and the Londonderry Bands Forum produced the Maiden City Accord  in 2014 which has acted as an agreed code of conduct for parading in the area. This, along with productive dialogue between parading organisations, community groups and business groups, has led to a number of previously contentious parades in the city now taking place totally peacefully. What has been achieved in Derry/Londonderry provides a sense of optimism about the potential for local resolutions to difficult parading issues that can lead to satisfactory outcomes for all sides.

The Ardoyne parading dispute is a reminder that despite enjoying relative peace in Northern Ireland for almost two decades, the legacy of Northern Ireland’s divided past still lives on today. While Northern Ireland has changed dramatically during this time and has become much more vibrant and outward looking, issues like this cannot be ignored. In order to build a fully inclusive future for Northern Ireland, accommodation and respect for the traditions and sensitivities of all elements of the community must be achieved.  

A picture of the flag of Ireland

A History of Ireland - Timeline

Delve into Irish history, from the first arrival of the Celts, through to the Good Friday agreement.

Earliest Inhabitants

3501 BCE

Ireland’s earliest inhabitants were hunters and fishers and later farmers. They were prosperous and built great stone monuments, called megaliths, in strategic locations. Newgrange, in the Boyne valley, is a passage grave and dates to c.3000 BC, making it older than Stonehenge or the pyramids in Egypt.

The Celts Arrive

601 BCE

Celtic people and culture originated in central Europe. In Ireland, Celts were cattle farmers and lived in raths, circular earthen enclosures that we call ‘fairy forts’ today. They were fine craftsmen and had an advanced literary and religious culture.

The Coming of Christianity


Ireland was a destination for early Christian missionaries from Europe. Palladius, likely from Gaul, was the first and worked largely in Leinster in the south-east. Patrick, who arrived slightly later, worked in the north and established a monastic community at Armagh, which secured his place as the patron saint of Ireland.

The Norman Invasion


In August, about 600 Norman soldiers landed at Bannow Bay in ------ Wexford to support Diarmait Mac Murchada, the deposed king of Leinster, in his bid to retake his throne. Their leader Richard de Clere, alias ‘Strongbow’, married Diarmait’s daughter Aífe to secure the alliance. This was the start of the ‘English’ presence in Ireland. In 1177 the Dublin-based John de Courcy moved north and conquered most of Ulster.

The Rise of Kildare


Over time, Norman settlers integrated with Ireland’s Gaelic inhabitants, taking on their culture and language. English kings neglected Ireland and their influence was soon reduced to ‘the Pale’, an area around Dublin. Ireland was essentially governed by local leaders, such as Gerald (Gearóid Mór) Fitzgerald, the 8th earl of Kildare. As the English king’s official representative in Ireland, he used his position to expand his family’s substantial power and influence.

Tudor Expansion in Ireland


The Tudors were a new breed of English monarch. They were active in expanding their influence over Ireland. They crushed a rebellion by the Kildare family in 1534 and imposed more direct rule over the island. They introduced Protestantism as the new official religion and experimented with ‘plantations’, government-sponsored settlement schemes to populate rebellious territory with loyal, and productive, farmers.

The Nine Years’ War comes to an end


In 1595, Hugh O’Neill, one of the last great Gaelic lords, with substantial lands in Ulster, rose in rebellion against the Tudor queen Elizabeth I. He surrendered at Mellifont, without realising that Elizabeth had died only a few days previously. Local English officials imposed harsh terms on him and his followers. In an attempt to raise support in Europe, O’Neill and other Gaelic lords fled to Rome in 1607. Their lands were declared forfeit to the Crown.

The Plantation of Ulster


James 1, the new king of England, initiated a scheme of plantation on the forfeited lands in Ulster belonging to Hugh O’Neill. The land was surveyed and terms drawn up. Landowners, called ‘undertakers’, included great Scottish lords and powerful London trade guilds. Between them they recruited tenant farmers from England and Scotland. By 1633 there were an estimated 40,000-50,000 settlers in Ulster. They brought their Protestant (especially Presbyterian) religion with them. The growth of towns soon followed. The problem of the displaced local Gaelic population was never properly addressed and security for the new settlements was a constant worry.

The rising of 1641


Norman and Gaelic landowners were anxious about their future and had planned to rise against the king, Charles I, on 23 October 1641. Their plans were overtaken by events in Ulster, where locally-based rebels launched a series of sectarian attacks against plantation settlers. About 4000 settlers were murdered, and the accounts of survivors widely circulated in anti-Catholic propaganda publications.

Cromwell in Ireland


The rising in 1641 launched a more sustained rebellion by the ‘Catholic Confederacy’, who allied themselves to the ‘royalist’ side of the English Civil War. When Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated Charles in England, they turned their attention to Ireland, storming first Drogheda then Wexford. Cromwell’s military actions were highly controversial and laid the foundation for a sustained confiscation and plantation of Ireland.

The siege of Derry


English Protestants had objected to James II’s Catholic policies and his support for the French King Louis XIV. They appealed to William of Orange, an opponent of Louis, to help them depose James, who had fled to Ireland. Jacobite (pro-James) forces surrounded Derry but on 18 April, defiant ‘apprentices’ refused to let them enter, shutting the gates to the walled city and enduring a 105 day siege. This event now plays a prominent role within unionist and loyalist culture and is celebrated by the fraternal order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry.

The battle of the Boyne


Another event in the struggle between Jacobite and Williamite forces on Irish soil. On 1 July 1690 (11 July new style) on the banks of the river Boyne William’s army outflanked their opponents. James overestimated the risk and fled. Insignificant in strategic terms, its anniversary was celebrated by the Orange Order from the 1790s. Dating errors and calendar reforms have led the battle to be commemorated on 12 July.

Penal legislation enacted


In the wake of the wars with James, the Irish parliament enacted a series of laws which discriminated against Catholics and excluded anyone not a member of the Church of Ireland from political office. This meant Presbyterians were also affected. Throughout the 18th century, ownership of land and the exercise of political power was in the hands of Irish Anglicans. Starting in 1778, a series of ‘relief acts’ began to lift the bar on Catholic and Presbyterian participation in public life.

The foundation of the Orange Order


The Orange Order emerged out of a sectarian riot between a group of Protestant ‘Orange Boys’ and Catholic ‘Defenders’ at a crossroads called ‘the Diamond’ near Loughgall, ------ Armagh on 21 Sept. 1795. With structures taken from Freemasonry, it aimed to preserve Protestant dominance over Catholics and celebrated King William’s memory. It was frequently banned but later became an integral support group for the emergence of modern Unionism.

The 1798 Rebellion


In 1791, in Belfast and Dublin, a group of radical activists formed the United Irishmen to demand greater political rights for Presbyterians and Catholics. Radicalized by the repressive measures taken against them, they sought French support for an insurrection, which went ahead in 1798. With most of the leadership arrested or deported, it was doomed to failure.

The Act of Union


The Act of Union brought about the formation of ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. The Irish parliament in Dublin was abolished and Irish lords and elected MPs took up their seats in Westminster. There were around 100 Irish constituencies. In the late 19th Century some Irish MPs started to form strategic alliances, where they could hold the balance of power in British political decisions.

Catholic Emancipation


Catholics are given the right to sit in parliament as MPs. This was the culmination of a campaign for greater civil rights for Catholics across the UK spearheaded by Daniel O’Connell, an Irish lawyer. He is considered to be the founder of the constitutional tradition of Irish nationalism, which sought political change via peaceful, and legal, means.

Father Mathew


Ireland’s population was growing rapidly in the early nineteenth century. In 1838, the Capuchin monk Father Mathew launched his teetotal crusade. By 1842 5 million people, largely poor, rural Catholics, had signed the pledge to abstain from alcohol. Mathew was said to be imbued with magical powers, a symbol of the popular beliefs still prevalent amongst the Irish poor.

The Great Famine


In 1845 potatoes harvested in the eastern parts of Ireland showed signs of ‘blight’ (phytopthora infestans), a disease which causes potatoes to turn black. Repeated outbreaks of blight, combined with short-sighted government policies and structural problems in the Irish land system led to over a million excess deaths and the start of a sustained period of mass emigration which did not ease until the early 20th century. The Famine occupies a seminal role within modern Irish literature, culture and identity.

The formation of the IRB


In 1848 a group of disaffected Irish nationalists staged an abortive rising. Out of this emerged the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or the Fenians, founded by James Stephens in 1858. Nurtured within the Irish migrant communities in America and Canada, it organised a further rising in 1867, which also failed. Members were influential within many late 19th century nationalist movements and were crucial in the planning and execution of the Easter rising in 1916.

The Ulster revival


Throughout the summer of 1859, Protestants in the North of Ireland were affected by a popular wave of religious enthusiasm. Religious meetings were crowded and frequently disrupted by Pentecostal-type behaviour such as shaking, crying out and falling down. Church attendance escalated dramatically but religious leaders were divided in their opinions.

Land War begins


With the onset of a serious agricultural depression, the Irish land system came under criticism. Tenants began to demand what were called ‘the three F’s’: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. Their protest activity was organised by the Land League, who sought to disrupt the eviction of tenants from their farms. They forced the government to implement sweeping changes to the land system. Land acts in 1881 and 1903 forced landlords to sell their lands and laid the foundation for Ireland's modern system of owner occupancy.

A Unionist opposition emerges


Protestants, especially those with substantial business interests in Ulster, were worried about Gladstone’s sympathetic attitude towards Irish nationalism. In 1885 they formed the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union and in 1886 the Irish Unionist party. They wanted to maintain their current position within the British commonwealth. They campaigned extensively throughout Ireland, Scotland and England. They form the basis for the modern Unionist movement.

First Home Rule bill


From the 1870s, some Irish MPs began to work together and exercise their collective influence in favour of home rule for Ireland. Called the Irish Parliamentary party, they won 86 of Ireland’s 100 seats in 1885. They put pressure on William Gladstone, the leader of the British Liberal party, and in April 1886 he introduced a home rule bill into parliament. It failed, but marked the start of a sustained attempt by Nationalists to achieve self-government for Ireland.

Formation of Sinn Féin


Arthur Griffiths and Bulmer Hobson founded this radical political group in 1905. Its name means roughly ‘ourselves’ and it stressed political and cultural autonomy for Ireland. Prior to 1916 it was a fringe movement. Although often associated with it, Sinn Féin did not take part in the Easter rising. It became influential in the years thereafter but was split over the Treaty, signed in 1921. In the 1970s The Troubles split the movement again, with the militant faction forming the basis for the modern-day Sinn Féin party.



On 14 April, Titanic, the flagship liner built by Harland and Wolffe in Belfast, struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage to New York. With a massive gash in her hull, she quickly sank with the loss of 1490 of 2201 passengers.

Ulster Covenant is signed


Unionists declared 28 September to be ‘Ulster Day’. Alongside demonstrations and speeches they organised the signing of a petition against home rule, the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’. Over 218,000 men and 228,000 women signed the document. It was a massive declaration of popular support for the union with Britain.

Home Rule is suspended


In 1912, despite Unionist protests, a Third Home Rule bill was passed in parliament, although it was defeated in the House of Lords. Because of delays and the outbreak of war in September 1914, its implementation was suspended for the duration. Constitutional Nationalists, under the leadership of John Redmond, agreed to support the British war effort and many Irish men served in British and Irish regiments.

Easter rising


The rising was planned by a secret military council formed within the Irish Republican Brotherhood. They drew on members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen’s Army, two local citizens’ militias. On Easter Monday, 24 April about 1200 insurgents captured the General Post Office and other sites across Dublin. After five days’ fighting, they surrendered. Fifteen leaders were later executed. This ‘bold gesture’ or ‘blood sacrifice’ marshalled considerable support for a more radical nationalist approach to British involvement in Ireland.

Battle of the Somme


At 7:30am on 1 July soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division, many of whom were Ulster Protestants, climbed out of their trenches and advanced across no-man’s land. The advance bombardment had failed and they were cut down by enemy fire. Within 2 days, 5,500 soldiers had been wounded or killed. Its proximity to the Twelfth celebrations of the Orange Order makes the battle a symbolic event for contemporary Unionists.

War and a new government


In the 1918 general election, 73 Sinn Fein candidates were elected. They ‘abstained’ from taking up their seats in Westminster and formed their own assembly in Dublin, called Dáil Éireann. Eamon de Valera was elected President. They conducted their business against the backdrop of the Anglo-Irish war, the military campaign against the British presence in Ireland led by the Irish Volunteers (later the Irish Republican Army).

The partition of Ireland


The British government realised that some measure of home rule was inevitable. In order to appease Conservative and Unionist opinion, the Liberal government, under Lloyd George, proposed to partition the island and create separate parliaments for each. Sinn Féin MPs abstained from elections to the Southern body, but Unionists, under James Craig, used the terms of this Act as the constitutional basis for the creation of Northern Ireland.

A peace treaty is signed


The Anglo-Irish War forced the British to the negotiating table and led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in London on 6 December 1921. It fell short of full independence and split the Nationalist movement into pro- and anti-Treaty camps.

Irish Civil War


While Sinn Féin and the Irish people largely supported the Treaty, the majority of the IRA was opposed. Now called the ‘Irregulars’ they launched a military campaign against their former compatriots. Sinn Féin, now called the Provisional Government, shelled Irregular positions in the Four Courts. The government quickly established its own army under Michael Collins. He used internment and execution to put down the insurrection. With little co-ordination and few resources, the anti-Treatyite leadership surrendered in May 1923.

Revised Irish constitution approved


Drafted under the direction of the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, it formed the basis for Ireland’s conservative social identity and its firmly nationalist aspirations for a united Ireland. However, the Catholic Church’s ‘special position’ was abolished in 1972 and the claim to ‘the whole island of Ireland’ in Article 2 was amended in 1998.

WW2 and the Belfast blitz


Belfast was one of the most badly defended cities in Britain at the start of the war. Yet it had a considerable industrial infrastructure, which German reconnaissance planes had noted. Between April-May 1941, German bombers blitzed Belfast 3 times and Dublin once, even though the Free State had declared its neutrality.

A Republic declared


Between 1922 and 1937 the 26 -------- of southern Ireland were called the Irish Free State. Thereafter they were called ‘Éire (Ireland)’. In the 1940s the government came under pressure to declare Ireland a republic. While on an official trip to Canada in 1948, the government leader John Costello made the surprise announcement and the legislation was changed the next year. By the terms of the Commonwealth at the time, Ireland could no longer remain a member.

The Troubles start


The Troubles emerged out of a budding civil rights movement, which organised protests against religious discrimination and political corruption. A banned march on 5 October 1968 started a much broader protest movement when police brutality was caught on camera. Further demonstrations were overtaken by more radical elements, like the IRA, and a cycle of retaliation and escalating violence continued throughout the 1970s. Efforts to negotiate a ceasefire were routinely scuppered by intransigent attitudes and unruly elements within the paramilitary combatants on both sides.

‘Bloody Sunday’


On 30 January 13 demonstrators were shot dead by soldiers of the 1st Parachute Regiment following a banned civil rights march in Derry. The Widgery Tribunal (1972) absolved the British of blame, but the Saville Enquiry (1998-2010) overturned this conclusion. David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, formally apologised as a result. This event more than any other galvanised IRA recruitment and polarised attitudes between unionists and nationalists.

The Good Friday Agreement


From the mid 1980s efforts were put in place to negotiate a peace settlement to the conflict in Northern Ireland. On Friday 10 April George Mitchell, the chief negotiator, announced that unionist and nationalist parties had reached agreement on a way to govern together. This assembly, based at the Stormont buildings in east Belfast, has been suspended several times since 1998 because of lack of trust and perceived breaches of its terms. However, peace has widespread support among the wider Northern Irish population.

Meet the expert

A photograph of Michael Bower
Michael BowerThe Open UniversityVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Michael Bower
Michael BowerThe Open University


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