Contentious Rituals: Parading the Nation in Northern Ireland (Oxford, 2019), a new book by American political scientist Jonathan Blake, is essential reading as Northern Ireland’s summer parading season begins in earnest.
Blake helps us understand why those who parade – and those who don’t – are almost always talking past each other.
Readers of this book should gain a better understanding of why those who parade genuinely feel that their culture is under attack and believe that their participation in parades should not be understood as divisive. This is not because paraders are deliberately disingenuous or hopelessly bigoted. Rather, it is because participants think of parades as strictly cultural, and specifically not political events. They participate in parades for ‘fun’, the intrinsic pleasure they gain from the process itself, which includes hours of preparation ahead of the events themselves.
This is a much different reading of parading than the typical accusation that it is an elaborate exercise to send a message of intimidation to opponents, an interpretation often articulated by parading’s critics. While Blake does not dismiss this more malign interpretation altogether, he privileges participants’ own perspective, calling it ‘the paradox of anti-politics’. This ‘helps explain how participants seem to downplay or ignore the divisive consequences of their parades’ (p. 17).
But while carefully articulating paraders’ perspective, Blake does not accept it at face value. He points out that even though paraders may at times feel powerless or hard done by, only groups who have a relatively privileged relationship with the state are able to continue rituals that others interpret as contentious. For example, this may be facilitated through a police force that upholds and protects participants as they engage in their practices. Blake further explains (p. 143):
‘… there is political power in anti-politics. This power is premised on the idea that culture transcends politics and is therefore exempt from practices of democracy, such as critique, debate, and compromise. … The discourses of culture and tradition are thereby a free pass to act in ways that would not normally be acceptable in society.’
While Contentious Rituals is an academic book, Blake has a clear writing style that is accessible for a general readership. It also is worth pointing out that Blake’s definition of ‘contentious rituals’ has a specifically academic meaning: ‘repeated, symbolic actions that make contested claims and that are actively challenged by others in society’ (p. 5). Blake includes a theoretical discussion of ritual which allows him to compare Northern Ireland’s loyal order parades with public ritualistic practices elsewhere in the world. Indeed, citing Donald Horowitz’s research, he notes that contentious rituals are ‘one of the most frequent precipitants of ethnic riots globally’ (p. 10).
Yet Blake also critiques the academic literature, which has tended to focus on what elites gain from contentious rituals and to ignore the perspectives of participants themselves. Blake wanted to avoid that trap. So his own research drew on more than 80 interviews with participants from a variety of loyal orders and bands, people who no longer parade, politicians, community leaders, ex-prisoners, and Protestant clergy; a randomized household survey of paraders and non-paraders in a Protestant area of Belfast; and observations of parades and band practices.
The result is a book which has as its greatest strength the space it gives participants to speak for themselves, with Blake quoting extensively from interviews. Contentious Rituals is not uncritical of parading, the way it has been managed, and its often divisive impact in Northern Ireland. But Blake’s depiction of paraders is refreshingly human.
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com