Observers of the north of Ireland are from time to time caught by surprise when the reality of life here contradicts their belief in a steady progress towards normality. Such a moment came outside a Catholic church in Belfast. A 12th July demonstration by one band playing a hate song went viral on Facebook and led to restrictions on further band processions outside the church. The decision of Orange order bands to break the Parades Commission ruling about marching and playing outside the Church was accompanied by unrestrained expressions of sectarian hatred more or less unlimited in the depths of bigotry that were unleashed.
And that was the point of the demonstration. In the eyes of the loyal orders the Northern statelet exists to express orange supremacy. The role of the Orange marches is to ritually assert that supremacy. One minor news item in this year's marching season was a complaint by the Polish consul when a large number of Polish flags were burnt. But this racism is a minor key when all the bonfires burnt Irish flags and threats and insults aimed at Catholics are routinely displayed.
The activities of the sectarians cannot be mistaken. Where the observer goes wrong is in assuming that the British, the political parties and the peace process mechanisms are all at work attempting to outlaw the public displays of sectarianism and Orange supremacy. In fact the keystone of the peace process – "equality of the two traditions" guarantees the continuation of sectarianism and binds the nationalist parties to supporting it.
So the role of the unionist parties is to assert the common aim of domination with the Orange Order and the loyalist gangs. A minister in the local administration, Nelson McCausland, is to the forefront in advancing the "rights" of the bigots. Leading members of the local administration, including the First Minister, sign a public petition in support of the bigots.
This triumphalism is distributed across unionism. One of the most vicious of the sectarian killers commits suicide. Nelson McCausland is pictured on Facebook in close embrace with the killer. The local ASDA supermarket where he worked opens a book of condolence. Thousands of Loyalists mobilize to mourn his passing and the police close roads to traffic to facilitate the demonstration. A local council votes to offer the freedom of the city to the Orange Order, having previously awarded it to the prison warders who oversaw the torture and death of republican hunger strikers.
The mechanism of control used by the state is the Parades Commission. This completely undemocratic quango has two aims. One is to remove from the police the responsibility for enforcing public order laws in this area. The other is to coax and bribe the Loyalists to reduce the rawer aspects of their demonstrations and "dialogue" with Nationalist community groups. Now and again it makes timid attempts to restrict marches, usually followed by mass sectarian violence and rapid retreat. Loyalists hate the commission, but proposals to abolish it founder because the Orders will not accept even the most miniscule limitations on their rights to sectarian intimidation.
The Parades Commission today has a very simple response to Loyalist defiance. It advocates its own dissolution.
The role of the state in relation to loyalist sectarianism is best seen when contrasted with their attitude to republican oppositionists. A number, including former hunger striker Marian Price, are effectively interned. When republican protesters try to obstruct Orange marches this is an arrestable offence and the police respond with force. If the protesters fight back all are hunted down in a mass publicity campaign and the courts hand down maximum sentences.
On the other hand, when loyal orders break Parade Commission determinations, this is not an arrestable offence. It can be pursued quietly with the possibility of an eventual fine. The sectarian baying of supporters appears to be invisible to the police.
As time passes the sectarians are more and more triumphant, stepping up the violence to ensure their supremacy in a pattern that has been part of the Orange tradition for centuries. The strongest criticism they have faced comes from a minority of Protestant Church leaders. The dog that sternly refuses to bark is Sinn Fein. Under the policy of "equality of the two traditions" they support the marches, calling on the Orders to be more polite and understanding. Their bile, and the bile of Nationalism generally, is focused much more sharply on those opposing the marches - last year's protesters in Ardoyne were the subject of a witch hunt, with the nationalist press filled with photographs of suspects and calls to inform the police of their identity.
On the other hand Sinn Fein was mobilized on the 12th of July across the North to police flashpoints and suppress nationalist response. Where the provocation proved extreme the Shinners staged "protests" which consisted of hand-picked supporters looking sad and asking for respect for the Nationalist tradition.
True to form, leading Sinn Fein figures led the "protest" at St Patrick's cathedral. Even under a tide of vitriol their slogan was not for the repudiation of sectarian hatred but for dialogue. This commitment to dialogue with bigotry recently led a Sinn Fein MP to sponsor a funding application from a sectarian marching band.
There will be dialogue. All agree, including the sectarian provocateurs and their spokespeople, hardly able to keep the smirk from their faces. The dialogue is not to prevent sectarianism but to make it more acceptable.
The end of September will see massive Loyalist demonstrations commemorating the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the act which led to the partition of Ireland and the establishment of a sectarian state in the North. The British and nationalists will work overtime to reduce the most overt and direct forms of threat and insult, while the loyalists ensure by any maens necessary that public demonstrations of supremacy remain unrestricted. The mobilization will spell out to Irish workers in letters of fire the outcome of the peace process - a statelet ruled by Britain and dominated by sectarian hatred.