The elephant in the room

The intervention by police to stop a circus owner exercising elephants through the streets of the seaside town of Bangor may well be put down to the absurdity of life in Northern Ireland. Where else?

A closer look at this incident makes the controversy over the ‘homecoming’ parade for soldiers through the streets of Belfast on Sunday 2 November, and the Sinn Fein protest march/meeting more understandable. How?

The police were alerted to the elephant’s walking in Bangor by an anti-circus campaigner. This individual gleefully told radio listeners that he took this action to highlight opposition to the use of animals in circuses. Had he chosen to make a ‘ban circuses’ placard and walked with the elephants he may have looked a little silly and a lone voice. Why look silly when you can call the police and use the law?

We can be reasonably sure that the Parades Commission, set up to consider parades in Northern Ireland, was not set up to stop an elephant walking down the road. But it can. Just as it can stop vintage car rallies and cycling clubs on the public road – yes it can!

The difficulty for the authorities in establishing the Parades Commission was that to make exceptions would have also made it obvious that the legislation was aimed primarily at the curtailment of freedom of expression by one section of the community. By far the greatest numbers of Parades are annual commemorations by the Loyal Orders.

Protest events along the Loyal Order parade routes are not unusual. If people want to protest they have that right, within the law. Nor should we be surprised if Sinn Fein have decided to bring republicans onto the streets of Belfast to protest against the ‘homecoming’ parade.

The first difficulty for Sinn Fein is that this parade is for the Royal Irish Regiment, which retains strong local attachment and many have served gallantly. Local press have reported extensively on the RIR contribution, almost exclusively on a ‘human interest’ level.

The second difficulty is the purpose served by the protest. Mostly, Sinn Fein has been at sixes and sevens on this point. Protest, as with parade, must be notified to the Parades Commission. But in the media the protest has been variously stated to be about the War in Iraq, the killing of republicans by the British Army through the years of local conflict, the British presence in Irish, and so on.

Here is the point. The lack of consistency in reasons for the protest is down to a failure to dress up naked anti-British sentiment; blatant coat-trailing. In the final analysis the opposition to the parade is opposition to anything British. Just as the issue was not the elephant down the road, but the reason the elephant was in Bangor, so it is not the ‘homecoming’ parade for the RIR, but the fact that it is the British in Northern Ireland.

So too with Loyal Order Parades. Republican opposition was orchestrated, often with extreme violence, creating the controversy that led to a clamour for the regulation of parades enabling further diminishment of fundamental freedoms – now by the state, willingly and disgracefully undermining the Rule of Law. The elephant in the room is the sheer sectarian hatred of anything and everything British.

For those few from the Protestant community taking part in face to face dialogue the frustration in never being told what the issues were with specific respect to the parade under discussion is one reason why dialogue has been so elusive. There is little evidence from the dialogue that has taken place that there is any willingness to accommodate anything that celebrates, or represents, ‘Britishness’.

The IRA’s use of meetings between communities to collect information on Protestant community leaders, to ‘target’ them in military parlance, is clear evidence of the disingenuous manner in which republicans have worked on the parades issue.

Which then brings us back to the Strategic Review on Parades, currently considering its Interim Consultation Report. The Review group should note the not unsurprisingly bitter political row that has erupted over the ‘homecoming’ parade. That a parade has once again become a political punchbag is to be expected.

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.

The current ‘thinking’ of the Parades Review group is that ‘parading’ should no longer be the responsibility of a Parades Commission, but that parading is placed within the Office of OFMDFM. How this will not result in political interference/dealing/brokering is something beyond imagination.

The Strategic Review seems to be predicated on a political deal on policing and justice taking place. That the Review on Parades depends on 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 and not reliant on externalities. If the Review itself depends on a political deal, then how is there hope that parades will not continue to be politicised and used to modulate tensions and division to the benefit of a few and to the detriment of all.

In a free society, the Rule of Law would regulate parade and protest. The OFMDFM should be capable of respecting the necessary conditions for a free society, without rancour.

The issue of parades in Northern Ireland is unlikely to be resolved while the elephant remains in the room.

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