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'Putting the Marchers on the Right Road', by Jarman & Bryan

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Text: Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan
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Belfast Telegraph,16.7.96
Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan

The events of the past week have clearly demonstrated that the present procedure for dealing with disputes over parades is inadequate. It may seem naively optimistic to talk about how we might reach agreement over future contentious parades, but the marching season is far from over and we need to maintain a focus on this issue.

Long before the reaction to the RUC decision to re-route the Orange parade from Drumcree church engulfed Northern Ireland in violence, calls had been made for a new approach to the problem. During the protests and violence last summer a number of ideas were put forward:

* Decisions over the right to march should not be left to the police but should be considered by an independent body.

* A set of general principles, which guaranteed both the right to march and the right not to suffer unwanted parades should be drawn up.

* It was suggested that the present law is an inadequate means of addressing the problem and should be changed.

* Above all it was hoped that people from both communities would acknowledge the need to compromise in order that the disturbances should not be allowed to escalate.

These ideas were endorsed by a wide variety of parties through the summer of 1995. Unfortunately when the marching ended the issue was largely ignored. Some parties did attempt to continue a dialogue, to promote discussion and engage in debate. Some refused. When Easter Monday arrived and rioting broke out at the Ormeau Bridge after an Apprentice Boys parade was stopped from marching along the lower Ormeau Road it became clear that the problem `hadn't gone away'.

Disputes occurred at parades in Crossgar, on the Ormeau Road, in Bellaghy, Dunloy, Lurgan, Roslea, Downpatrick and in north and west Belfast through May and June. It became obvious that this marching season was going to be at least as difficult as the previous one. The violence of the past week is therefore not just a result of the events at Drumcree. It is also due to the failure to address the issue of parading more generally.

At present each parade is treated as an isolated event. The police rule on a parade on the Ormeau Road, on a parade through Lurgan and on a parade in Portadown as if each decision has no effect on the others. Each decision is made on the basis of public order. This has meant that larger and larger crowds have been encouraged onto the streets to influence whether a parade should be allowed or banned. The result of this policy was witnessed last week.

While the police and the politicians insist that these are local events to be dealt with at a local level, members of the both the unionist and the nationalist communities are watching the bigger picture. For Orangemen, each parade that is re-routed is a threat to their culture, an appeasement to Dublin. For nationalists, each unwanted loyalist parade that is forced through, or each republican parade that is re-routed is confirmation of second class status. One may doubt the veracity of these as facts, but one cannot dispute the strength of the beliefs, the power of the feelings.

The recent violence has also focused on the need to find a way to talk through the parading issue. It is difficult to see what can be done in the short term except to continue to urge people to discuss and search for compromise. Drumcree showed that there was a willingness of church leaders to become more publicly involved. Recent statements by Dr Harry Allen, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church indicate that he will be willing to continue with this work. We now have nearly a month until the next major parades. It may seem a facile and naive hope that any compromises can be made now, but if we are to avoid further disturbances attention must be focused on the remainder of this marching season. Discussions must be encouraged and supported.

We must also start to look ahead to next year and beyond.

Numerous voices have spoken in favour of an independent body to look at the parades issue over the past year. In response to the events at Drumcree Patrick Mayhew announced he would establish some form of independent `roving eye', although it is still unclear what remit this would have. Interviewed on television at the Twelfth, David Trimble accepted that the `problem will have to be addressed', while David Ervine emphasised the need for people to talk to community representatives whatever their background. It is vital that all the loyal orders involve themselves in whatever process might be forthcoming.

A short term advisory commission, on the lines of the Mitchell Commission, made up of individuals with a civil rights or a judicial background, could be set up by September and asked to produce a report within four to six months. It could take submissions from all interested parties, not merely those who are involved in organising or opposing parades. The commission could consider the larger picture in a number of ways:

* by drawing up general guidelines for parades

* by reviewing the procedures to ensure that decisions over parades are fair and consistent

* by suggesting how the future marching seasons should be handled

* by examining the effectiveness of the current laws governing parades

The guidelines would aim to balance the demands for the right to parade and the right not to suffer unwanted parades. It could consider the issue of rights of access to town centres, to neutral public spaces and to main thoroughfares or arterial routes. It could explore the issues of consent versus consensus and could draw up a framework for negotiation which those in dispute would be expected to follow.

While the rights of marchers and the rights of residents have been to the fore recently, the commission would also need to address the issue of the public responsibilities of parade organisers and protesters. Rights to parade or protest can not be unlimited.

There is no doubt that these will be difficult issues to explore as attitudes have become even more polarised over the past week. But there is also a greater realisation that something must be done. However the Mitchell Commission did manage to focus debate and to draw up a set of general principles which drew a broad consensus on decommissioning. We need a similar debate about parades without the pressure of a fast approaching zero hour.

As an adjunct to the general guidelines, a commission could offer an overview of the next marching season which would provide balances to Orange concerns that their traditions were being continually eroded, and nationalist concerns that they were being discriminated against. Under the present system each parade is dealt with when notification is given, seven days in advance. Each disputed parade becomes a major focus of concern. An overview might help move us away from the present focus on winners and losers. It would show that although one or two parades may be re-routed, others will be allowed. It would make the issues more public and subject to debate and argument.

Who would enforce the commissions recommendations? And what if they were ignored like RUC decisions at Drumcree? Ideally the general principles would provide enough guarantees to keep most interested parties on board and to contain disputes within force of argument rather than force of numbers.

However it may also be appropriate for the commission to consider the longer term or more drastic options to deal with parades. This may include changes to the legislation or means of imposing greater constraints on parade organisers. In the report we also discuss suggestions that were made for a more formal system of parade planning permission, which would require a much longer period of notification for parades and of the imposition of financial bonds or insurance on parade organisers. None of these may be desirable constraints on freedom of expression, but we do need to be thinking ahead and developing a longer term strategy to ensure that the violence of the past few days does not become a `traditional' part of the marching season.

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