Monday, March 06, 2006

Ireland and Unionism

The weekend before last, the first Unionist Orange Order march in the republic of Ireland, since the foundation of Ireland as an independent state, was due to take place on O' Connell Street in Dublin. O' Connell Street is home to the GPO (the General Post Office). It is famous for being at the epicentre of the 'Easter Rising', an event that proved the main catalyst behind Irish independence. A Unionist march taking place on this thoroughfare would therefore be of no little symbolic import. The march has given rise to a substantial amount of controversy in the Irish media. Though the march was given the go ahead, it was eventually frustrated by fairly large scale rioting and civil disturbance. These events, coming after the cartoons controversy, have prompted commentators in Ireland to reflect on the failure to guarantee the civil liberties of the Orange marches to parade in the centre of Dublin (the stated object of the parade was to highlight the plight of the Unionist victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland). Relatedly, it has also promted questions about whether the events have tarnished or will have perceived to have tarnished, Ireland's modern image as a secular, tolerant and multicultural society that has 'moved on' from its troubled past. Other commentators have highlighted the possibility that the rioting was more the expression of social alienation of certain sectors of Irish society (and also it seems economic migrants) who have not benefited from the affluence generated by the 'Celtic tiger'. What this complex set of events arguably shows is that abstract rights like 'freedom of speech' and 'assembly' are problematic entities to defend and advocate outside of the specific contexts in which they are employed. The events in Ireland bring home these complexities for those of us aware of more of the relevant contextual factors in a way that perhaps cannot necessarily be the case in so far as the parallel 'cartoons' controversy is concerned.

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