For those of you unfamiliar with the ‘parades issue’, it’s a phenomenon in Norn Iron in which the Loyalist Orangemen have loads of marches to celebrate the fact that they have loads of marches, whereas the Disloyalist Fenians can only muster one, on Paddy’s Day.
Now read on …
Two of the most dangerous moments of my life involved marching – and they both happened on the same day.Garbhan Downey’s WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES is the Hughes & Hughes Irish Book of the Month for August. Nice one, squire.
As a newspaper reporter in Derry in August, 1995, I decided, with a cameraman, to try and get some pictures of loyalists celebrating outside the Memorial Hall, after a particularly controversial morning parade. We were scouting the revellers from about 30 yards away, when one of them spotted us. And before you could blink, an angry battalion were hurtling towards us, tearing off their sashes as they ran.
Had it not been for a very brave RUC man, who appeared out of nowhere and stood between ourselves and the mob, the photographer and I have would have been place-kicked off the Derry walls a full 40 feet into the Bogside below. No question about it.
Later that day, I was monitoring the afternoon parade from Butcher Street, when a notorious Antrim band broke away from the route and decided to stage an impromptu performance for 500 young people wearing Celtic tops, hemmed behind police lines. It’s hard to believe how quickly it all kicked off; but for the first time in my life I truly got the significance of the phrase “rabbit in the headlights”. On that occasion, I was hit with a bottle as I fled – but still escaped a lot lighter than most of the city-centre, which was burnt to a cinder.
The FTQ parades, if I’m to be honest, never had quite the same edge. Possibly because they never applied to march down Ballymena High Street, so the opportunity for direct confrontation wasn’t there. But they always carried an air of menace nonetheless, right down to the band everybody hoped wouldn’t turn up, with their shaved heads, 1970s’ sunglasses and black berets.
Not surprisingly, in idle moments, I used to wonder if there ever could be an alternative to parades. Perhaps a more productive and less volatile alternative. From what I could see, the rest of the world didn’t spend their summers marching and counter-demonstrating - so there were obviously other pursuits out there for grown men that didn’t end in nationwide arson.
Then one evening, I was dead-heading a cloud of wild ‘bucky’ roses in my father’s garden, when an idea began to, ah, take root. Instead of spending £5 million to police this annual square-off, why doesn’t somebody take the money and sponsor a giant gardening competition? Loads of category winners, with the overall champs getting, say a big bundle of cash and the chance to design a new rose-garden for the White House.
Complete, off-the-wall fantasy, I know. Who would ever spend their days growing flowers when there’s a chance to stage a paramilitary passing-out parade over their neighbour’s lawn? The incentive, i.e. bribe, would have to be enormous.
Step forward a cunning Taoiseach, who suggests that if the winners of the festival produce a blue rose – the Holy Grail of the gardening world – they could be eligible for a £50 million-a-year patent. Now, we’re talking. The only condition is that anyone caught marching, counter-marching or looking sideways at another honest citizen for the months of April to September will be automatically disqualified from taking part.
Yes, yes, I thought. What a wonderful idea. I just have to tell the world. Sadly, however, as I was speeding my way to the Parades Commission, I was waylaid by a publisher, who offered me a very small bagful of money to deliver the plan as a comedy novel instead.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “they’d only muck it all up anyway.” Only he did not quite say muck.
So in true Northern Ireland fashion, I took my mess of pottage and left the wider community to sort out its own business.
As you’d expect, the characters in my new book WAR OF THE BLUE ROSES, experience their own difficulties beating swords into gardening-tools. And, as in most schemes involving the British and American governments, things never quite work out the way we were promised over praties and Jameson in the White House on St Patrick’s Day.
All-out victory on the parade ground is swapped for all-out victory on the rose-plots. People lie, cheat and otherwise behave like the politicians they are, in the race to produce the world’s first blue rose - and capture the multi-million pound payday. Type reverts to type.
Happily, however, in my books at least, there is always a moral compass that allows me to deal with the worst offenders in the most satisfying of manners. Sinners are punished, honest men rewarded, and skin-headed drum-bangers consigned to levels of crapulence Dante couldn’t have dreamt of.
If only a man could get a job like that in the real world ...