Resolving the Parading Conflict
Resolving the Parading Conflict
Having joined the Orange Institution in 1964 and served on the Parades Commission 2011-2013, I believe that I can offer an analysis of the parading conflict in Northern Ireland. A number of groups have an influence and can make a positive contribution to resolving this conflict if they step up to the mark.
Politics in Northern Ireland does not reflect any real understanding of what it means to be a political representative in a democratic society.
When any politician is elected to represent a particular parliamentary constituency they are to represent the totality of that constituency, not a sectional interest within it and certainly not only those who may have voted for them.
If this principle of democracy were understood and acted upon there may well be some hope of resolving local issues in areas of conflict. This is particularly true of North Belfast where as yet, local politicians have been either unwilling or unable to resolve local issues.
The conflict over parading and protesting is fundamentally a societal issue and therefore one for politicians to resolve. It is not a matter solely for the Parades Commission or indeed the Police, both of whom are only holding the ground until such times as political representatives can reflect the desire of wider society in Northern Ireland, and come to an agreement on parading and protesting. The Parades Commission only exists because of the failure of politicians to address the situation.
It may well be of some help, in the meantime, for local Politicians to acquaint themselves with the rules under which the Parades Commission operate. During my term on the Commission I have been embarrassed by the total lack of understanding of the rules by political representatives and party spokespersons.
Following the violent conflict of 12 July 2013 the Northern Ireland Assembly tabled a motion for discussion in which they made reference to, “the application by the three Ligoniel Lodges”. Parading is a civil right and the prescribed Form is a notification not an application. You notify to exercise a civil right you do not apply.
The Commission operates from the basis of the fundamental right to parade and protest. However, the right to parade or protest is a presumptive right and not, an absolute right. This is acknowledged by the Grand Orange Lodge; “absolute freedom of assembly could lead to chaos and anarchy and there must be checks on it”. Senior Orange Grand Chaplin Canon Long affirmed: “The refusal to accept any restriction on Orange Order marches is not sustainable, . .” In 1998 the Presbyterian Church in Ireland passed a resolution; “The issue about parades and protests has to do with conflict between two groups of people holding to two sets of rights, neither one of which is absolute.”
Only a small percentage of the 3,000 parades in any given year associated with the “loyalist community”, have restrictions placed upon them. Most of these restrictions are music restrictions. The Parades Commission does not “ban” any parade as they have no legal right to do so.
If our politicians availed themselves of the opportunity to understand the work of the Parades Commission and did not use inflammatory language about its decisions, or seek to pander to their own sectional interest, there may be a real possibility of resolving these societal issues.
One would find it difficult to disagree with Thomas Jefferson’s affirmation that “freedom of the press”, being one of the “principles [which] form the bright constellation which has gone before us”. In many respects a free press is a guardian of any democracy. This is particularly true in Northern Ireland. But a free press should also be a responsible press and should be careful about the language they use. This applies to the print media as well as any electronic or verbal means of communicating.
Over recent years I have observed that media reporting has developed the worst of the tabloid clichés. When it comes to reporting, particularly in the volatile parading situation, care should be taken about the language used. The language should be precise. It is amazing that there are some people who believe every word printed!
An unknown group calling themselves, “Loyal Peaceful Protestors”, lodged a late notification for a parade on 21 September 2013. Their stated purpose was:“Political Policing Also In Respect Of Legal Flag Protest And Familys [sic] Of Those In Prison And Under House Arrest”. This was followed by other notifications giving the purpose as: “Human Rights Political Policing PSNI Brutality”. Again, in respect of a parade on 11 January 2014, the purpose was: “PSNI Brutality, Loyalist Prisoners, The Flag, Civil Rights, Political Policing”. However throughout this period the media kept making reference to “Flag Protests”, when the emphasis was clearly “Anti-Police”.
On many occasions it is the headline writer who fails the test of precise language. In the Belfast Telegraph 16 July 2013 the headline was: “Lodges will face even more bans if they continue to flout rulings”. In the accompanying article Liam Clarke chooses his language more carefully by the use of the word “restrictions”.
Over the years the press have consistently used the word apply when making reference to a notification for a parade or protest. Not only does this convey the idea that the Parades Commission has much more power than it actually has, but it sends out the wrong message, ie., that you have to ask permission to exercise your civil right. This is an anathema to Orangemen.
The controversy over the Young Conway Volunteers behaviour outside St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on 12 July 2012 is a prime example of bad communication by the media.
It was not just a matter of this band playing – but the fact that they sang the words of “The Famine Song”, a song ruled by the High Court of Scotland to be sectarian. The media also overlooked the fact that a public representative for North Belfast, Nigel Dodds, the D.U.P. M.P., whose lodge Ulster Volunteers LOL 1216 engaged this band, stood immediately behind the band watching this behaviour and did not intervene.
The wise and precise use of non-emotive language by all those who communicate to wider society would not only present a more holistic picture, but would make a significant contribution to the resolution of contentious parades.
The flag protests which followed the removal of the Union Flag on Belfast City Hall in December 2012, created huge difficulties for the police but these were difficulties already experienced by the PSNI. The difficulty was, simply put, an operational decision whether or not to stop an illegal parade or let it proceed, gather evidence, and pursue those in breach of the law afterwards.
Exactly the same operational decision pertains when there is a breach in the determination of the Parades Commission. If, for example, a band is prohibited from walking, the police have the choice to either physically remove the Band from the parade or gather evidence for future prosecution.
The weekly protests, which appeared to take the form of a parade, from East Belfast to the City Hall were not notified to the Parades Commission, and were therefore illegal. The PSNI suggested that it was the responsibility of the Parades Commission to make a determination, when it was obvious to many that the Commission could only act on the basis of the Notification Form. It appeared to many that police intervention was being constrained by very senior officers.
The wider community clearly expected to see consequences for breaches of the law, but it was not until the end of February 2013 that Jamie Bryson and William Frazer were arrested for their involvement, and the protests at the City Hall were reduced to 150 who were ‘bussed-in’.
This failure of the police was recognised by Mr Justice Treacey when he noted: “police facilitated illegal and sometimes violent parades”, and “It is evident that ACC Kerr was labouring under a material misapprehension as to the proper scope of police powers and the legal context in which they were operating.” It is worthy of note that while the Chief Constable vowed to appeal, the Police Federation welcomed the decision.
The same principles which apply to illegal parades also apply to the determinations of the Parades Commission. In the light of this judgement, will the police uphold the Parades Commission determinations by either enforcing them on the day or vigorously pursuing the organisers afterwards? In spite of a multitude of breaches of the determinations, no organisers of parades were before the courts until recently, when five members of the Back Institution where found guilty and fined £150 each.
The relationship between the PSNI and the Parades Commission must be one of transparent honesty as different parading scenarios are examined.
The real test will come in the same area of East Belfast when the return Twelfth parade of Belfast No. 6 District consistently stops in Middlepath Street in breach of the Parades Commission determination.
Brian Rowan commented on Mr Justice Treacy’s ruling . . . “this was not the force’s finest hour”.
If the lessons of the past have been learned and the rule of law enforced, without partiality, we could yet see their ‘finest hour’.
Parading has a long and noble tradition in Ireland; but it also has the ability to provoke a negative reaction, particularly in Belfast, where areas of conflict in the 1880’s, 1920’s and 1930’s are still areas of conflict today.
It was the failure of the Orange Order to deal with widespread conflict over Drumcree which lead to the establishment of the Parades Commission. To put it bluntly, it was the failure of the Orange Order which led to the creation the Parades Commission.
Many in the parading fraternity have not grasped the fundamental fact that the right to Parade is a presumptive right, and the Parades Commission will only intervene if there is a likelihood of civil disorder, a conflict of rights or a negative impact on community relations. Therefore, when notifying a parade organisers should consider a route and conditions which will prevent the Commission from intervening.
Those in the parading fraternity, particularly those belonging to an organisation which professes to be “Christ-centred, Bible-based, Church-grounded”, are morally required to do much more than would be expected of a non-religious body.
They must recognise that others have rights as well; the residents through or passed whose districts they parade, the traders whose businesses are affected, and not least the PSNI whose responsibility it is to maintain public order.
As a Christian Minister, I have at times been ashamed by the behaviour of some professedly Christian organisations. The Christian principle is established in Scripture – The interests of others come before the interests of self! “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2;3)
It is un-Christian to encourage the breaking of the law – the determinations of the Parades Commission have the force of law! “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Peter 2:13) It is also un-Christian not to keep your word, “Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made” (Matthew 5:33) The self imposed template issued on 11 June 2013 by the Orange and Black Institutions was swiftly broken.
Parading organisations must take responsibility for the parades which they notify, and ensure the good behaviour of all those who participate. It is behaviour in the public square which must be addressed. It is long past the time to stop playing the game of “whataboutery” and accept responsibility when things go wrong. If no offence is given no offence will be taken.
Those in the “loyalist” community should desist from making accusations which do not stand up to public scrutiny. When the Parades Commission intervenes, the cry is often – “This is an attack on our culture”. The facts reveal a different story. Over the last ten years there has been a 30% increase in parades from the “loyalist” community and a 3% increase in the twelve months up to March 2013.
The parading culture is thriving – but in what form and at what price?
Those who wish to protest, like those who parade, have a presumptive right to do so when they notify the Parades Commission. After due consideration, the Commission may place restrictions in terms of numbers or venue of the notified protest.
The recent history of protest is well known in Northern Ireland. Gerry Adams’s speech at a Sinn Féin conference in Athboy, County Meath, in November 1996, was confirmed in a letter to the Irish News on 30 April 2013.
“In 1996 Sinn Fein covertly set up ‘Newry Coalition Against Sectarian Parades’ of which I was chairman. This was part of its overall strategy which was replicated throughout the six counties to confront loyalist parades against the backdrop of the then Drumcree dispute.”
It is against this backdrop that those in the Protestant/Unionist community judge all protests against “loyalist” parades. They fail to understand that the policy of Sinn Fein has changed in the light of their ‘equality agenda’ and that they have no control over many of the current Residents Groups.
The Law of physics operates in many areas of society not least in protests. An action produces a reaction and we have witnessed recently the growth of ‘loyalist’ protests. There has been a tendency over the years for people and groups in the unionist/loyalist community to ‘ape’ the ‘other side’. These reactions have not helped to resolve the inherent issues.
Those, from whichever section of the community, who genuinely object to a particular parade, should show some tolerance. We are all confronted in our multicultural society with events which we find uncomfortable. If you are not comfortable with motor bike racing and live on the route of the North West 200, you are required to show some tolerance for a week in favour of those whose passion it is.
Those protesting against parades should do so in a dignified way, and not inflame the situation by making wild allegations about the conduct of a particular parade. Sometimes it is the protesters who breach the determination.
They should also avoid the procreation of protests. When they do not get their own way by having protests at multiple venues, they give birth to another ‘group’ who then notify for the venues restricted by the Commission. This is an abuse of the system.
These principles apply to all who wish to exercise their right to protest. However, ‘loyalist’ protesters, who lay claim to be protesting in order to maintain the Union, should recognise that these displays, which often lead to violence against the Crown Forces, do nothing to enhance the Union in the minds of the general public of the United Kingdom. Neither do they cement the Union.
Unfortunately in our society the parade/protest controversy does nothing to enhance community relations, neither does it lead to a better understanding of a shared future.
The right to protest which we enjoy is a right won at great cost. It should not be taken for granted neither should it be abused.
News Letter Web Site & Amended for “Compromise after Conflict” Blog at Q.U.B. June 2014