There is a polished black granite memorial plaque at Bangor Castle, the seat of local government in the northern town of Co Down.
“Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Northern Ireland,” it says, “May 3, 2021.”
One hundred and one years, plus three days, after the creation of Northern Ireland, which was founded, designed and for many years largely administered to the exclusion of part of the population, members of the Order of Orange gathered just feet from home plate on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning.
The news overnight after the election count was that Sinn Féin had become the undisputed largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and its leader had a compelling claim to be Prime Minister.
“It’s not the result I would have liked,” said John Hoy, Master of County Armagh and organizer of his county’s annual Junior Orange Order parade in the seaside town.
“I feel sick of her leading our country,” said another South Armagh Orangeman in reference to Sinn Fein deputy leader and likely first minister Michelle O’Neill.
“Don’t put my name in there,” he added. “Not where I’m from.”
Sixteen groups gathered at Castle Park. They played flute, accordion and drums and wore marching band uniforms in the dominant colors of red and deep blue.
Men, women and children wore orange ruffs and the names of the groups, displayed on huge banners, proclaimed subjects important to the Orange tradition. Among them were the Kilbracks Bible and Crown Defenders from Markethill, the Moyrourkan True Blues and the Somme Memorial band from Bangor itself.
They walked from the castle grounds to the city, to the waterfront, and then back again. The atmosphere was more of a family day out than an assertion of something territorial and the reaction to the seismic election result was more sad than angry.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said a man, an importer and distributor of firefighting equipment, who did not want to be named. “Two hundred and fifty thousand of my compatriots have decided to vote for a party that does not apologize for the death and destruction inflicted on us and which they glorify and celebrate. It is very sad,” he said. -he declares.
But there was also a marked degree of acceptance of the election result and its implications.
“I’m a realist,” said companion David Cahoon, bowler hat and sunglasses, born-again Christian Orangeman. “We are a democracy,” he said, adding “but it’s a shared office.”
Passionate in his denunciation of the Northern Ireland protocol, what seemed to him most important was that all politicians “uphold the moral law of God”.
“The Unionists are a democratic people,” said the South Armagh man. The result was accepted. He wanted Unionist politicians to stop what he described as “silly nonsense”, a reference to union infighting.
While that was one hallmark of the election, another was a pronounced “blight on both of your houses” rejection of the Orange Vs Green stasis in Northern politics and a widespread desire for politicians to “se put to work”.
Anecdotal conversational evidence suggests this is behind the wave of support for the Alliance party, the “yellow splash”, as one commentator put it in reference to the party’s color, which has more than doubled its seats in the Assembly, from eight to 17.
North Down is one of several constituencies where the party won two of the five available seats and support for a change in the way politics is conducted is not hard to find in Bangor.
“A lot of people miss the division and want a party that wants to work together [with others] to make things better,” says city resident Rachel Surgenor, who voted for the Greens, Alliance, Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), in that order. . Voters wanted to give the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) a nosebleed, she said, adding, “and they did just that.”
Her friend Juliana Sloan, who voted Alliance, Green and UUP, agrees.
“The DUPs are all ‘Fenians take over’ [but] a lot of people don’t care anymore,” she says. She describes herself as “secretly delighted” with the election results.
“Part of it has to do with Brexit and how the DUP backed the wrong horse,” she says. “I am optimistic because it is clear that there is an appetite for change. There are a lot of people who have decided they’ve had enough and that’s fine.
And she added: “And we are going to have a female Prime Minister!”
In Tyrone, Alan, a 35-year-old freelancer who did not want to be identified, also yearned for a policy that was unfettered by the Orange Vs Green trench warfare.
An instinctive trade unionist, he says that “my opinions have evolved over the years”.
“I would lean heavily towards the UUP and it’s very disappointing to see them do so poorly,” he said before the count ended with, in the event, the UUP losing just one seat. “The DUP is locked in a time warp. The SDLP, UUP and Alliance could be a very good combination to run this place.
The emergence of Sinn Fein as the largest party in the Assembly came as no surprise to him.
“I follow politics so it’s not a shock,” he said. “I saw it coming even though it’s a bummer.”
He says the “vast majority” of people want to get on with their lives and want politicians to work together. Most people, he says, see Stormont as a “circus”.
“Where is normal politics,” he asks. “Where are the day-to-day reasonable things? Let’s continue with that.
He has a young daughter and he wants the best for her. “I would like her to grow up in a Northern Ireland where no one, consciously or unconsciously, questions whether she is Protestant or Roman Catholic. I want her to grow up and vote on the policies and not on the constitutional question,” he says.
While Sinn Féin was reluctant to promote a border ballot during the election campaign, even though it was in its manifesto, when the counting of votes ended, leaders again called for a ballot. The prospect of such a vote does not bother everyone.
“I feel a bit uneasy but, oddly, I would love to see a united Ireland in the future,” says Daryl O’Dowd, a Common Ground voter and Bangor resident. “A vote for a united Ireland in the future, maybe 10 years from now, is fine with me. For me, England and its anti-EU and anti-immigration policy, I want to get away from it all.
She says all of her friends, many of whom date back to her school days and have similar pro Alliance, SDLP or soft union outlooks, feel the same way.
Alan is also relaxed about a border ballot, while not favoring a united Ireland.
“I was raised in English,” he says. “I have British and Irish passports. My name is Irish now but it’s my second nationality. I’m probably Northern Irish first, then British.
He thinks the people of the Republic are completely unprepared for what a united Ireland could mean. Unionists and Protestants in Northern Ireland would not tolerate being “assimilated” into a united Ireland and feared being “dominated”.
Some elements would oppose such a change by force, he feared, hinting that the unrest could be “worse than the unrest”.
This is partly echoed by ‘Eileen’, a middle-aged woman in the hardline loyalist neighborhood of Pitt Park, east Belfast, Newtownards Road, who for years refused to tell me her real name but is nevertheless happy to chat with a journalist from Dublin. .
“I’m worried if they start talking about it,” she said of a Border/United Ireland poll. “At the moment, we have too many other things to worry about: electricity and food [prices]. I’m sick of the orange and green stuff but I want my identity protected.
The area is adorned with celebrations of loyalist paramilitarism and I asked Eileen what defined her identity.
“The drumbeat,” she said holding her chest, “it’s an emotional thing.”
Orangemen in the Bangor parade had a ‘be careful what you wish for’ approach to a border ballot, saying he would be thrown out at the polls.
“Many of these Sinn Féin voters will not be voting for a united Ireland,” said the South Armagh Orangeman – a claim that seems hard to believe.
A high-ranking labor figure who wouldn’t allow himself to be mentioned by name was optimistic about the prospect of Premier Michelle O’Neill and all that might mean.
“It’s the best thing that could happen, frankly,” he said. “We fetishized this, despite the fact that it is a joint office. So maybe it’s a good thing that we have this monkey on our backs. Apart from the symbolism, it makes no practical difference.
Except that in Northern Ireland, symbolism counts perhaps more than elsewhere.