An Orange Order parade is scheduled to go past St Alphonsus Church in Calton where a priest was spat on last July. Glasgow City Council was wrong to agree to this route. In solidarity, I intend to join other trade unionists in the peaceful protest which has been organised for Saturday.
In working for the STUC I have organised a lot of marches in Glasgow over the years. These have been broadly speaking ‘political’ marches aimed at demonstrating that many people, both our members and across wider society, have a specific view about an industrial or social issue. I have never laboured under the misapprehension that everyone agrees with us, nor that some people might be offended by the opinions we espouse. We have, no doubt, offended racists by marching against racism, and homophobes when we march for LGBT+ rights. There are, no doubt, some folk who disagree with us when trade unions march for Equal Pay for Glasgow’s Women or fair pay for Scotland’s teachers.
We also sometimes explicitly march against particular groups – counter-demonstration. We have organised marches in opposition to organisations such as the English or Scottish Defence Leagues which have, as a primary purpose, the identification and harassment of racial minorities. This is trade union solidarity. We march to send a message to the targeted minority that they are not alone and to isolate the extremists.
In the course of organising such marches, I have frequently been required to negotiate over a whole range of issues – routes, timings, the use of music, to name but a few. This can be frustrating. There are a number of restrictions and there is an expectation from the Council and the Police that we show ‘give and take’ to balance the rights of our members and their supporters to march and the rights of civilians to go about their daily lives without undue alarm. In short, we don’t always get the route that we want.
Part of march route negotiations also require us to take a degree of responsibility for incidents and behaviours that might be linked to our march. There is no absolute rule here. For example, when I was one of the main organisers of the 2003 anti-war march in Glasgow, there was no suggestion that I could be held responsible for the behaviours of all 150,000 people who attended that march. We were however required to work with the police to identify potential flash points. And whatever march I organise, I am required to monitor what happens in and around my marches and to co-operate with authorities to prevent unnecessary risk and to obviate causing unnecessary distress.
At the very least, this is what should be expected of the organisers of Orange Parades.
Last month, a man pled guilty to having assaulted Canon Tom White on July 7th 2018. Canon White had been spat on and lunged at as the annual Boyne parade passed St Alphonsus Church in Calton on July 7. Abuse hurled at the priest included ‘Fenian Scum’.
In court, Sheriff Andrew Cubie told the guilty man “I want you to be under no illusion at all, spitting is disgusting and cowardly and this was done in the context of a sectarian atmosphere which is an embarrassment to the West of Scotland.”
None of this is untrue. But what also needs to be said is that this was, specifically, an anti-Catholic crime. In my view it is also anti-Irish racism. (I make the latter assertion without even needing to know whether Canon White would identify as Irish or not).
As Canon White himself has said ‘Just using a label like sectarianism doesn’t help in these instances – these crimes are specific and a blanket term of sectarianism does not identify it for what it was. We need to be more honest about the nature of the crimes. It was specifically an anti-Catholic crime and a hate crime’
The response from the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland to the original crime was to “totally condemn the bigoted actions of those involved and hope that they are dealt with to the full extent of the law.” The Lodge also stated that no person who was part of the formal parade had been involved in the incident.
The Lodge asserts that the Orange Order is founded on the principle of religious liberty and respect for people of all faiths. When it comes to parades, I think the majority of people in Scotland would agree that this strains the bounds of credibility. There have been calls to ban marches and Glasgow City Council has pledged to reduce their frequency, though the success of this policy is very far from clear.
Irrespective of this particular aspect of the debate, what is entirely clear to me is that the parade on Saturday should not pass St Alphonsus.
Moreover, serious consideration should be given to going further than this. There are 2000 streets in Glasgow and fewer than 2% of them hold a Catholic church.
As a matter of respect and to employ due diligence to avoid such incidents being repeated elsewhere, Glasgow City Council should now be giving very serious consideration to the re-routing, as a matter of policy, of any parade that passes a Catholic church.