I was reporting from Portadown - but Portadown 22 years ago, in the July of the great Ulster Workers' Strike. Then it was Obin Street; today it is Drumcree and Garvaghy Road. The scenery changes a little over the years but the script remains the same.
The huge beast of Protestant power rises from the swamp once again and bellows at those who thought it might have grown tame or even become extinct. It is a frightening moment, and a very bitter one. In Britain, it seems as if everything so painfully constructed over the last few years is being washed away as the monster shakes its flanks. What will remain of the hope for mutual respect between "two cultural traditions", the security of Catholic households in Protestant areas, the suggestion that the Royal Ulster Constabulary is more than the majority's uniformed militia, the fostering of a younger Protestant consciousness which has forgotten how to hate, the remnants of the ceasefire, the peace process itself?
For the British on their own island, Orangeism and loyalism have never seemed more grotesque or more alien. What have we to do with these madmen, and how can the Queen and Country they rave about be the same as ours? Most people, I think, still believe that Ulster Protestants have a right not to be forced into a united Ireland against their will. But the argument that Britain has the exclusive duty to defend that right grows weaker every year.
My own belief is that all is not lost in Northern Ireland, and that Orangeism is not at all as foreign as it seems. For one thing, the English and the Scots are looking at their own recent past when they contemplate Ulster. Modern historians tell us that cultures, social or political, radiate outwards from centre to periphery like waves on a pond, so that attitudes forgotten in south-east England are still splashing the shores of Antrim. And the same historians also tell us that "British" patriotism at the popular level was created out of anti-Catholic fear and hatred no less fanatical than any Lambeg drummer's. In Lewes, Sussex, they still burn effigies of the Pope on Guy Fawkes night. In living memory, they burned him all over England. There could be no "honourable compromise" at Drumcree, an Irish friend says to me. The whole point of marching is to dishonour somebody, so compromise would have been equivalent to defeat. In other words, Orange marches are a ceremony of domination or they are nothing. It is seductive to see the marching season as no more than a heritage display, in which a community struts about town in fancy dress to reaffirm its identity. But this is not an English village pageant. Marching and parading is not an end but the means to an end. And that end is showing the sullen natives that the marchers are their masters.
It seems to me that there is a category of "outpost peoples", to which the Ulster loyalists belong. Such peoples understand themselves as defenders of a tradition whose centre is far away - a centre which has often forgotten about them. The Krajina Serbs thought that they were more intense and pure defenders of "Serbianism" than their cousins in Belgrade. Afrikaners used to see themselves as the last redoubt of "Western Christian values" in a barbarian sea. Cossacks feel more Russian than the Russians, patrolling the fringes of the empire to subdue the heathen enemy. Not without a grain of truth, loyalists claim to represent an older Britain - virtuous, imperial, Pope-hating - which has since forgotten what made it Great.
Most outpost peoples have a skewed, paranoid view of the outside world. While Orangemen spoke of the secret collusion between the Kremlin and the Vatican to overturn the Reformed Religion, Afrikaners discussed the mysterious "Illuminati" (mostly American Jews, held to include President Carter) who were plotting to take over South Africa's gold and bury it under the Great Pyramid. The xenophobic fantasies of Serbs and Cossacks are no less crazy.
But the key to Drumcree is that cowing the "natives" gives outpost peoples their sense of identity. Public displays of their power over the Untermenschen who surround them are a statement of "who we are". An Afrikaner who could not demonstrate that the "kaffirs" feared him might feel less than a complete Afrikaner, and Bosnian Serb atrocities against Muslims - including gang- rape - had something of the same motive.
In Ulster, the rite of power is biblical. The descendants of Protestant settlers from Scotland and England came to see themselves as the new children of Israel, chosen by the Lord to inherit and settle a land held by heathen Canaanites and Midianites (the Gaelic-Catholic Irish). Some Orangemen are actually British Israelites, believing that the British can trace their physical ancestry from the lost tribes of Israel. The people of the Lord must forswear marriage to the daughters of their foes, whom they must rule with a rod of iron.
This is why it mattered so much at Drumcree that the Orange march should pass through Catholic streets. To a Cossack, a Russian is some-body who subdues non-Russians. To a Protestant extremist, a loyalist is somebody who intimidates Catholics and observes the rite that puts them in their place.
Metaphors are made of air, but metaphors kill men and drive women and children out of burning homes. They are harder to arrest than arsonists in balaclavas. And yet even outpost peoples change, as the Afrikaners seem to have changed. When all the mess of the last week has been swept up, some grounds for hope will still be there.
This Protestant upheaval was far less widespread and far less focused than the huge Workers' Strike insurrection of 1974. Since then, in spite of the bloodshed, there has been steady progress towards equality of opportunity for Catholics, and that cannot be bombed away. War-weariness on both sides led to the 1994 ceasefire and remains a fact. Both sides? The British - public and government - are weary too.
One real casualty of last week is the dream of an independent Ulster - a "Euroregion" with allegiance to Brussels rather than to London or Dublin. Sadly, foreign soldiers are still needed - not just to contain the IRA, but to protect Catholics against Protestant aggression. But the question which will not go away is why those soldiers have to be British. The "peace process" seems hopeless now. Peace itself, after some fashion, will stumble back to Northern Ireland, knocking on one door after another until somebody dares to let it in. But I do not think it will be secure until there are new uniforms on the street, whose blue berets are a metaphor for nothing.
That can mean the UN or Nato, but both mean the Americans. It is the last resort, but perhaps the only hope. When the first American patrol moves up the Lower Falls, and when the Stars and Stripes flutter above the guardposts on the Foyle bridges at Derry, then the madness can slowly begin to drain off the land.Reuse content