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Stretching democracy to its absolute limits

(Tom Kelly, Irish News)

"Our society, perhaps more than most, requires a clear understanding among all sections that law is enforced by the police service and the criminal justice agencies and that any attempt by individuals to take the law into their own hands will be dealt with severely." These are the words of Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Kerr as he handed down stiffer sentences to three loyalists who mounted an armed roadblock in July 2003. His decision was welcomed by nationalists and republicans.

His Irish counterpart may reflect on his sentiments on 'our society' if and when he gets to sentencing any of the thugs and rabble who so violently disrupted Dublin at the weekend. The actions of these urban bullies, who clearly were organised, prove – if proof is needed – that there are those in Irish society who simply do not understand the concept or freedoms that democracy affords its citizens.

The organisers of the Love Ulster parade must be smirking all the way back to their various lodges across Northern Ireland.

They have succeeded in ways that they could never have hoped for and at the very heart of 'Ireland of the welcomes' the thugs who opposed their right to march discredited our nation across Europe.

As a young student I learned a lesson in democracy while working in the mayor's office in Atlanta.

The mayor had been a contemporary of civil rights activist Martin Luther King.

He had been the first black mayor of Atlanta and went on to become the first black US ambassador.

On the way to work I passed an ultra white group protesting outside city hall. The very sight of this racist and sinister group made my blood boil.

I remember exchanging more than a few expletives with some of those who were not wearing masks. The mayor noticed me and asked why I was so upset.

I said that I could not believe that "these people" could march and protest, given their views. He reminded me that freedom of movement and free expression are true tests of a democracy, providing they are exercised within the law.

The sight of Orange bands on O'Connell Street may be provocative to some elements of republicanism and indeed there is no doubt that some of the organisers intended it to be provocative.

However, whatever one feels about the politics of partition or whatever side of the nationalist/unionist debate one is on, if we cannot live side-by-side as two legitimate traditions on one island, if we cannot live up to the aspirations of tolerance so implicit in the spirit of true republicanism, if we cannot "cherish all the children of the nation equally" as stated in the proclamation, then we need to take a second look at the symbolism of our national flag – for there is no Ireland if green cannot reconcile with orange.

The aspiration of a united Ireland will remain just that unless Orange demonstrations are as welcome in Dublin as they are in Ballymena.

Our role as persuaders for that cause is undermined by those who on Saturday wore T-shirts (on sale in most Sinn Féin political shops) with slogans such as 'IRA – Undefeated' and ripped bricks from beneath the statue of Parnell to hurl at Irish police and Irish media.

The rioters on Saturday have set back the cause of Irish unity and further alienated mainstream Irish society from engaging in the northern question.

For once, Jeffrey Donaldson was right – we can't talk seriously about getting speaking rights in the Dail if there are those who would prevent unionists speaking outside of it. The organisers of the Love Ulster parade could and should have been welcome to march past not only the historically significant GPO but the statue of that great Irish Protestant Charles Stuart Parnell, and that of Labour leader Jim Larkin who supported the rights of workers in Belfast and Dublin.

They should have been allowed to pass the former home of Grattan's Parliament, Carson's birthplace and his alma mater at Trinity, for these things are of their heritage too.

Republicanism as spouted by Republican Sinn Féin or Provisionalism as espoused by Sinn Féin falls way short of the inclusiveness of Tone, Parnell and Collins.

For as WB Yeats once wrote: "In dreams begin responsibilities." The dream died a little last Saturday and the irresponsibility and intolerance of those who used violence to oppose the Love Ulster parade very clearly demonstrated that they don't even love Ireland.

February 28, 2006

This article appeared first in the February 27, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News