Dani Garavelli: Scenes at Glasgow marches embarrass Scotland

The lesson of Northern Ireland to Glasgow is that feeding a sense of sectarian grievance won’t end the violence, writes Dani Garavelli
Loyalists gather yesterday in George Square to protest against Glasgow City Council's decision to ban marches this weekend. Picture: John DevlinLoyalists gather yesterday in George Square to protest against Glasgow City Council's decision to ban marches this weekend. Picture: John Devlin
Loyalists gather yesterday in George Square to protest against Glasgow City Council's decision to ban marches this weekend. Picture: John Devlin

Last Saturday, my husband and I were trying to make our way to war photographer David Pratt’s exhibition on Glasgow’s Saltmarket when we spotted scores of police officers on the north and south banks of the Clyde.

There was no point in trying to drive across the river, so we dumped the car on one of the side streets near The Laurieston. No-one was being allowed to enter the South Portland Street Suspension Bridge, so we walked as far as the King’s Bridge and crossed there.

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From the south bank, all the activity seemed quite thrilling: the Broomielaw tiger flanked by horses, and crowds and flashing blue lights, as the police helicopter circled overhead had a filmic quality.

But as we got closer, the Hollywood cop movie glamour faded; in its place were clusters of disaffected young men clutching beer cans, as weary officers tried to keep events from spiralling out of control.

The exhibition – when we finally reached it- proved to be an unsettling blend of bleak and beautiful. Comprised of pictures taken in conflict zones across the world – from Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion to child refugees in present-day Syria – Only With The Heart is a study of the human cost of political and religious tribalism.

Here in Scotland, we know nothing of the horrors faced by those whose cities are under siege and homes shelled; but we are no strangers to sectarianism. Over the past two weekends, it has once again brought trouble to our streets and further tainted our reputation.

Govan mimicking the Garvaghy Road; a police officer injured by a flare, and for what? A clash of identities; a religious rivalry that means nothing to anyone living outside of the Central Belt, and little enough to most of us living in it.

There are clear and present threats to democracy out there: an unelected Prime Minister, the proroguing of parliament, the spectre of a no-deal Brexit. And yet, the thing that tipped the city into disorder was not a backlash against a right-wing coup, but a resurgence of the Catholic/Protestant division that has blighted it for generations.

Central Scotland’s predilection for provocative parades is nothing new. An oft-repeated statistic is that Glasgow has more Orange marches than Belfast (although the number has been falling). And every year, there’s trouble: Lambeg drums beaten outside a Catholic 
church; spittle lobbed in the face of a priest.

Nor are Republican marches without controversy. Earlier this year, the appearance of the Sean McIlvenna Republican Flute band, which is pro-IRA, on our streets provoked outrage.

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The new twist, however, is that every march now appears to come with a counter-march – a “protest” or backlash which makes trouble almost inevitable.

So the three Republican marches which took place over the two weekends were met by gangs of Loyalist protesters, fired up over the possibility that the flute band would once again show up.

Had they been allowed to take place, the four Orange marches planned for this weekend would have been met with Republican protesters, and the one Republican march by Loyalist protesters.

All five, however, have been banned on the back of advice from Police Scotland. Glasgow City Council will be glad of a moratorium to create a breathing space and allow for a diffusion of tensions.

This is entirely justified, and what many people – fed up with the disruption – had been calling for, but it does not come without attendant risks; nor is it a long-term solution.

The risks have already been demonstrated by the Orange Order’s immediate response, which was to accuse the council’s “nationalist” leaders of anti-Protestant discrimination.

The Church of Scotland’s rapid rebuttal did little to take heat out of the situation. Protestants Against Discrimination organised its George Square protest in the knowledge, presumably, that it might provide a flashpoint for violence.

If a weekend-long moratorium provokes this reaction, then it seems likely any attempt at a long-term crack-down would be counter-productive. As Dave Scott, campaign director of Nil by Mouth, has pointed out, sectarianism feeds on a sense of grievance. And there’s nothing that fosters and legitimises a sense of grievance more than being able to claim your cultural/religious identity is under attack.

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It is the fate of Glasgow and other parts of the Central Belt to harbour two communities, each of which defines itself in relation to the other; two communities with a persecution complex, bound together in mutual antipathy.

Banning parades strengthens both the hostility and the bond by providing a cause behind which both sides can rally. In Northern Ireland – where the grievances are so much greater and more deeply entrenched – enforced rerouting and bans have only ever made things worse.

When change came, it was as a result of protracted negotiation and compromise. The so-called Derry Model – now used as a template for conflict resolution elsewhere – saw Republicans, Loyalists and business leaders sit down and talk. It involved a recognition that the conflict was ruining the city’s prospects; and an acknowledgement that, with the right to freedom of assembly, comes a responsibility not to engage in inflammatory behaviour.

It brought a change in culture, with parades passing off peacefully (although last year, tempers flared again over the wearing of provocative badges).

This has to be the way forward in Scotland. It may be difficult to envisage such co-operation right now as the two sides square up. But if it can happen in the city where the Troubles began, then it can surely happen in a city which is merely shadow dancing another’s country’s conflict.

The scenes that have unfolded over the past few weekends, complete with burning barricades and riot gear, are taking up police time, costing taxpayers’ money, impeding free movement and embarrassing Scotland.

Former First Minister Jack McConnell has blamed the SNP for dropping his summits on sectarianism when it took control of Holyrood in 2007. In 2005, Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Ian Wilson, the Most Worthy Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, joined 21 representatives from Scottish media organisations, the police, Rangers and Celtic football clubs, sectarianism charities and local authorities for joint talks. A follow-up summit was held in 2006. Because Alex Salmond dropped the idea it is impossible to know how successful the initiative would have proved, but leaders from both sides and the police had signed up to a voluntary code of conduct agreeing how marchers should behave to reduce violence.

To bring everyone back to the table more than 10 years on will require a degree of diplomacy. Perhaps politicians could start the ball rolling by demonstrating their own willingness to collaborate.

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In the past few years, the main parties have undermined each other’s attempts to address the problem, with Labour fighting the SNP on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Lord McConnell’s political sideswipe was also less than magnanimous.

But perhaps Nicola Sturgeon will find it within herself to overlook his dig and take up his offer of support in the hopes that the relinquishing of tribal positions and the proferring of olive branches might prove contagious.