There is no doubt that the Parades Commission has become an impediment to dialogue by acting in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner. This may because the Commission is caught between it’s regulatory responsibilities, its inability to understand that it has no ‘public order’ role, and the tendency to accept advice or comment coming directly from politicians (or the NIO) as being of greater importance than the facts before them in a particular and local case.
It often seems that the last issue to be considered by the Parades Commission is the particular parade under consideration.
Of course the Parades Commission is operating in a context that is highly politicised; though it is meant to be outside ‘political considerations, that idea was dashed when a parade on the Ormeau Road was denied in deference to the ‘Peace Process’ – which looked like not placing responsibility on republicans not to riot. The ‘political process’ has been elevated to over-write all other considerations and the consequent political interference or indifference with respect to parades has been to the detriment of the Rule of Law. No better example of that is the absolute breakdown in authority evident in violence across Northern Ireland in the week of the 12th July 2010. Politics and police just stood there taking the abuse and with little evidence of a longer-term response.
While parading by the Orange Order may have provided a context at the 12th, there was little evidence that the July rioters cared deeply whether the Orange Order paraded or not. The principal battle for hearts and minds is being played out in the Republican/nationalist communities – violence in Lurgan and Londonderry, and elsewhere, was pure thuggery to demonstrate that Sinn Fein’s support for the devolution of policing means little on the streets. The new Republicans on the block have learned well from those who similarly brought anger to the streets in the past: a progression from one generation to the next.
Meanwhile a review of legislation on parades and protest is on-going. The OFMDFM consultation is now the seventh review of the Parades Commission since its inception.
From the outset the Parades Commission was an unparalleled and unwarranted interference with the peaceful expression of a people’s culture and had significant potential to undermine of the Rule of Law. There is no moral or human rights justification for political and legal interference with cultural expression: quite the contrary. Trade Unionists claim the limitation within the OFMDFM paper are unique in Europe forget that they failed to raise a voice on the Parades Legislation which was similarly unique and intolerant.
Since the inception of the Parades Commission there has been a clear admission by Republicanism of a planned process to use the issue of parades for political advantage.
Sinn Fein has made no secret of its political activity in raising the parades issue. In the event the political process has been used as a sledgehammer to demonise, diminish and disrupt the exercise of legal, peaceful and fundamental freedom of cultural expression. The policy has been one of creating a cultural apartheid where no Protestant is seen, heard, or permitted within a stones throw of a designated, reserved, “sanitised” nationalist space:
There were a number of distinct advantages for Republicans in moving forward on the parades agenda. First it plays to the gallery and maintains a wedge between communities. In the absence of armed conflict it maintains a war of words that retains simmering sectarian tensions on which republicanism relies for purpose. This was a political hammer being used to crack a cultural nut. While leaders of the Orange Order may from time to time make pronouncements on broad political matters, it does not function as a political organisation. It was always poorly suited to a public political argument and certainly not to understand or challenge a political machine.
Political interference has prolonged the parades issue in Northern Ireland. The Parades Commission was itself a buck-passing exercise by the NIO, supported by the police – a firewall to take the heat off the Secretary of State and Chief Constable. It was born of political strategy and suckled by the political expediency of politicians who wanted to be seen as leading the fight (both sides), and by the demands of the ‘political process’ that meant not confronting the realities of rights and responsibilities as they should be within a society where the Rule of Law is paramount.
How the placing of the Parades issue into the Office of OFMDFM will not result in political interference/dealing/brokering is outside thedissenter’s ability to imagine. The present proposals seem to have been predicated on a political deal at Hillsborough. That the issue of Parades is being discussed in the context of a political deal is itself a weakness and indicative of a fundamental flaw in strategic thinking. A principled and fair outcome to the resolution of parades issues should be a local matter, having due respect for the Rule of Law, and not reliant on externalities. If the Review itself depends on a political deal, then how will parades not continue to be politicised and used to modulate tensions and division to the benefit of a few and to the detriment of all?
The process outlined by this most recent consultation process merely transfers the Parades Commission from being a quasi-judicial ‘independent’ body within the orbit of the NIO, to a quasi-judicial office within the orbit of the OFMDFM. This does not inspire confidence in transparency, accountability or an end to political interference. A previous ‘Quigley Report’ on parades had positive ideas with respect to an open, accountable and transparent process of addressing parading issues. There were elements of the mediation aspects of that Report which were woolly, but if offered a strategic view rather than political fix.
The current proposals do not offer significant encouragement to believe that a Shared Future is possible while a process exists in law that can be used to politically delineate and define ‘our streets’, and ‘our territory’. That this process is given legal standing does not remove legislation on parades and protest from the status of base sectarian harassment of folks wishing to be free to express their culture or viewpoints in peace and without fear of threat or violence.
In a normal society, one in which cultural pluralism is the norm and freedom of conscience is cherished, where another’s culture and views are respected, there would be no need for parades regulation by whatever name that body is known. The Ashdown Interim Consultation Report assumed the premise of a ‘normal’ society. If OFMDFM believed that Northern Ireland society has the ability to move forward then why consider the regulation of a people’s culture to be at all necessary? How does legislation that tends towards cultural apartheid and unreasonably and unfairly penalises a particular culture.
The Rule of Law should be sufficient to protect freedoms without regulatory bodies open to political interference. But authority, and the leadership that falls from that place of respect and standing in either politics or policing, seems absent. That we are where we are on parades and protests shows an attitude that all too readily accepts intolerance and exclusion as a norm, and for some is a political necessity.