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'Dialogue Holds the Key for Harmony', by Bryan & Jarman

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Text: Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan
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Belfast Telegraph, 31.1.97
Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan

The Independent Review of Parades and Marches was set up as a result of the disturbances and protests that arose during the summer of 1996. Its brief was to review the existing legal and informal mechanisms for dealing with disputes over public processions. The main recommendation, to set up a parades commission to oversee and adjudicate on disputes, has been the focus of most comments. However this is only a part of their conclusions and it needs to be put within the broader context of the rest of the report.

The published report is a substantial document with 43 main recommendations, which address three main criteria:

1. The need to reinforce the rule of law.

2. To acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of both marchers and residents, and of both communities.

3. The need for a more structured decision making process with the emphasis on dialogue, transparency and consistency.

The disputes last summer, and particularly the protests around Drumcree were seen to undermine the rule of law and the authority of the RUC. The report therefore recommends that the role of the police should be to uphold the law rather than adjudicate between competing claims to civil rights. While this would mark a break with established practice at parades in Northern Ireland, the proposed system would be similar that in force in Scotland, where the local authorities make the formal decisions over controversial parades, albeit with police advice.

A key element of the report is to identify the right to peaceful free assembly as a fundamental civil right. However it notes that this right is not unlimited, and it brings with it a responsibility to consider the rights of others within the community. Parading is not therefore an absolute right. But neither is there an absolute right to withhold consent. Instead the report recommends a need for sensitivity to the area in which the parade is to pass, the nature and history of the parade and the impact it will have on the local community.

The report suggests that town and city centres should be open to all legal parades but that more consideration should be given to those in villages, which will have a larger residential population. And while parades should, in general, be acceptable along arterial roads, the local circumstances must also be considered.

But while the location is important the type, nature, size and number of parades in any area must also be taken into account, and so too should the behaviour of paraders and protesters at previous events.

These general guidelines attempt to steer a middle course between the competing claims of tradition and consent, and they point to the key areas which need to be balanced when reaching accommodation.

But reaching accommodation between these competing rights has been the big problem over the past two years. To date the emphasis has been on encouraging local dialogue and agreement, with mediators brought in on occasions. The report recommends a more structured process, and one which would be co-ordinated and overseen by the parades commission, this is set out in the form of a `decision tree' within the text.

It has been claimed that such a body would only lead to an increase in spurious protests, but this is perhaps unduly pessimistic. The review team foresee that most parade applications would be processed as at present, without protest and without any conditions being imposed. Nor does it guarantee that all protests will treated in the same way, the commission will be able to reject spurious objections without imposing conditions on the parade.

Only more serious complaints will lead to meetings between the commission and the various parties, and if agreement is not reached at this stage then independent mediators may be brought in. If the issue is still unresolved other interested parties: commercial interests, clergy, community workers, will be consulted before a final `Determination' is made by the commission.

The intention is to draw out the process and allow more time for dialogue and consultation than at present. Although it will not be possible to force people to engage in dialogue, the report recommends that failure to follow these procedures should be taken into consideration in the final decision.

Furthermore the report recommends increasing the notification time for parades from seven days to 21 days to facilitate this process. This is likely to be one of the aspects that the loyal orders object to, however it is something which the Orangemen in Liverpool have been doing, without legal sanction, for some years.

The Determination set down by the commission will be legally binding and the RUC will be expected to enforce it. But there is an opportunity for the Chief Constable to appeal the decision to the Secretary of State. So the final decision over the right to parade will be a political one, and not a public order one. However the police will still retain their power to intervene in the interests of public order on the day, although this will not remove the moral authority of the original decision.

What impact would all these recommendations have on the disputes at present? Clearly this is highly speculative especially as it is far from clear whether the government will introduce any legislation in time for this year's marching season. Much will also depend on the willingness of the parties to the dispute to engage in dialogue and co-operate with the commission. But if the emphasis is on confirming and extending civil rights then a different pattern to last year might emerge.

If town centres are regarded as acceptable for all legal parades, then the parades by the loyal orders in places like Armagh, Derry, Newry and Strabane, which were rerouted last year, may well go ahead. But similarly an application from the nationalist community to parade in the centre of Lurgan and Portadown should be treated favourably.

The question of the most persistent disputes, in Bellaghy, in Dunloy, at Drumcree and on the Ormeau Road, is more difficult to call. It may well be that given certain agreements on the music, regalia, the numbers parading and the number of parades in a year, some form of access to a church parade by local people may be seen as reasonable. However against that would need to be balanced the behaviour at previous parades and an expression of willingness to confirm that the same rights apply to both communities. But any decision taken in 1997 would not guarantee a similar outcome in 1998.

Moving forward on this issue will demand a certain degree of trust, toleration and openness, factors which have been singularly lacking in attempts to reach a compromise. The initial responses to the report have largely been cautious and critical but as John Dunlop said at the press launch if anyone has any better ideas they should bring them forward.

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