Once again the big marching questions were left to someone else; not sorted or settled on the ground with time running out and the huge Covenant march just around a number of Belfast’s street corners.
We now know the traditional route along which these things travel; the familiar walk to the place of tough decisions.
A lack of local agreement means the parade of politicians, police and others to the offices of the Parades Commission in the city centre.
With each decision and determination another sticking plaster is applied to the parading cracks; before the next street drama, and then the one after that.
On Wednesday we did not have to wait long before hearing that tired broken record stuck on that familiar tune of blame.It is always the Commission’s fault; a charge that ignores the reality of disputes and deadlock on the ground; those places where parade and protest meet, and agreement is lost in a two-way war of words.
So, marching needs a thinking strategy that once and for all deals with this issue, not on a last minute parade-by-parade basis, but as part of an overall process that demands new approaches and agreement.
This weekend, what will the watching news eyes of the world be looking for and at?
Will they see evidence of a new beginning or the old ways?
It is too easy for those who shirk their responsibility on this marching issue to then walk the blame towards others; too easy to leave the mess behind and the tidying for someone else.
There is unfinished business in the peace process, and among the questions still to be answered is that of marching.
It asks for a big conversation within the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community; asks them to look at themselves as well as the “other side”.
You cannot point the finger at the “Sinn Fein supported” residents groups, and ignore the loyalist backgrounds of some of those within these parades.
If it wanted to, the “other side” could find as many reasons not to talk.
So, this issue needs grown-up thinking and grown-up conversations; that broken record to be put in the bin and new and different tunes to be played.
At the same time there is serious work for the nationalist/republican community to undertake; a serious and determined strategy to confront the dissident threat.
We are not far away from the 20th anniversaries of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994, and we are many years travelled since the negotiations and the political agreement of 1998.
So, there is a choice to be made between that new beginning or the old ways, and if progress is to be made, then it asks for thinking outside the box; something bigger and brighter than, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’.
In all of this, there is something to remember; agreement is not about one side deciding on the best way to proceed.
If neighbours don’t talk, can’t talk, then how much has really changed?
Could I take an alternative view on this debate which has been raised many times but no one wants to address it – like many other thorny issues in Northern Ireland we avoid that which we do not like. I respect the right of anyone to march and respect the right of anyone to protest about the march – as long as both sides keep it dignified and peaceful. But we have not learned to do that yet and so we rely on the police to in effect “police the parade” at a tremendous cost to the public purse.
Are we now mature enough to hold a discussion on who pays for the policing costs involved in parades. It surely is unfair that tax payers money is being diverted from schools and hospitals to pay for the policing of parades. It does stand to reason that a parade through a Loyalist district by a Loyalist band will require little – and sometimes no police presence (something I have witnessed many times). And yet another parade passing a flash point costs the price of a dozen nurses. And the same goes for any other type of parade by Republicans, vintage tractors or Boy Scouts. Should the Tax payer be made foot the biil and suffer a loss in other public services? I only ask and welcome other peoples opinions. Would it not be better for the country we all claim to love and for our public services if we kept the policing costs down.
This issue raised its head in parts of England at football matches where the clubs have to pay towards the the cost of policing. Can you imagine the uproar in England if local services suffered due to resources being spent on policing football matches for free.
The same goes for those who wish to protest – should they also pay towards the cost of policing their protest? I only ask and welcome opinions as you could easily end up with dozens of marches and counter marches being organised every week all requiring a huge police presence to be paid out of the public purse. Once again I only ask and welcome opinions.
I leave you with a strange but true fact. About 8 years ago in the aftermath of the Tsunami a Loyalist band decided to hold a parade to raise money for the victims – a very noble gesture indeed. However given the contentious nature of parading a police presence was required for this particular fund raising event. The policing bill for this parade came to £24,000. The band collected £500 for the victims of the Tsunami. !!!
Now that the dust has settled after last Saturday’s
Covenant parade, it’s time to refocus on the issues at hand and the imperative
of direct engagement.
We can’t allow ourselves to drift back into the
culture of complacency and indifference until we are jolted back into action in
9 weeks time with the emergence of the Lundy parades past Ardoyne and
The issues are well rehearsed but the requisite
leadership and application by both the Loyal Orders and the leaders of
political unionism has still to emerge.
Their lack of control over and the absence of any
condemnation of the bands that blatantly breached the determinations at both
Carrickhill and the Newtownards Road is disappointing but not surprising.
The promise of sacred hymn music evaporated as some
loyalist bands played sectarian tunes and beat their drums with gusto, as an
act of defiance to anyone who dared to suppress their ‘culture’.
In the final analysis this scenario will continue and
possibly deteriorate unless and until political unionism provides the cover and
encouragement to the Loyal Orders to engage with their neighbours.
Surely they must realise that the most effective way
of achieving their long-term objective of disposing of the Parades Commission
is to resolve outstanding parading disputes.
This would serve to make the role of the Parades
Commission redundant. It could also constitute a game changer for our society,
a major and timely contribution to consolidating our peace and political
processes and a blow to all anti-peace process elements who thrive on
contention and division.
I often hear the Loyal Orders espousing a desire for
mutual respect and tolerance. Can they transform these fine sentiments into
action by initiating a process of engagement with their neighbours?
If so, I am sure that such a gesture will be
reciprocated with understanding and appreciation, as was the experience in both
Derry and Crumlin village.