Room 21 – The inside talk – Brian Rowan on the first day of all-party negotiation at Stormont

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Room 21 – The inside talk – Brian Rowan on the first day of all-party negotiation at Stormont



They talked about a photograph this morning – whether there should be one to mark these latest negotiations on the vexed questions of flags, parades and the past.

And then they talked about a lunchtime tweet – what it said and should it have been said.

Day one of these all-party talks at Stormont followed a predictable line.

Unionists – first the UUP and then the DUP – elevated the parades issue; no surprise in the mouth of the marching season and with the July 12 ruling in north Belfast due soon from the Parades Commission.

In a lunchtime interview in the Great Hall, Tom Elliott said the morning session of these negotiations had talked around rather than about issues, and he made clear that his party wanted contested parades on the talks table and agenda.

Then Junior Minister Jonathan Bell, standing beside Orange Order Chaplain Mervyn Gibson, raised the marching stakes.

Tolerance and respect for parades would be key to the success of these talks he told reporters.

So, the shadow of that north Belfast parade that has marched on the spot for almost a year hangs over these negotiations.

Yet, there is nothing that can be done at this high political level to make a difference in the here and now.

The Commission’s ruling will be its ruling and the police will police that determination.

That’s what happens in the absence of local agreements and political agreements.

These talks may eventually change a decision-making structure, put another Commission albeit with a different name in place, but they can’t change attitudes on the ground.

The big question is whether the talks could survive a ruling like last year’s when the return parade was stopped on the Woodvale Road and not allowed to walk the route past the Ardoyne Shops and up the Crumlin Road.

Were there hints in what Elliott and Bell had to say today?

We will know soon enough.

It won’t be long before the Commission speaks.

Then we will know the ruling and, depending on its detail, will be able to predict the response.

For unionists the tremor will be if last year’s determination is repeated, but we don’t yet know if that is the decision or whether there will be some other ruling.


Belfast still a city of contradictions. Down by the river and a stone's throw away last night's security operation at the Short Strand

Belfast still a city of contradictions. Down by the river and a stone’s throw away last night’s security operation at the Short Strand



What we do know is that inside Room 21 an agenda has been set for day two of the talks.

The five Executive parties – DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance – will spend an hour discussing a paper prepared by talks facilitator Paul Sweeney, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education.

It is about issues and detail identified as the gaps or disputes from the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals.

And, on day two it is understood there will also be a discussion about legislation and parading code of conducts.

There is a panel of expert witnesses available to the parties in an advisory role including the Attorney General, NIO  and Dublin officials and the new Chief Constable George Hamilton.

There was some speculation that Mr Hamilton may be at the talks on day two, but Thursday is his first meeting with the Policing Board since they appointed him at the end of May.

The SDLP want the two governments in the room with the five Executive parties and want US help nearby, but these talks aren’t going anywhere fast.

For now, the real focus is on the Parades Commission and that ruling in north Belfast.

Whatever it is it will require another huge policing operation in that part of the city and, on day one of the talks, Alliance leader and Justice Minister David Ford took the opportunity to say that the Commission’s rulings should be honoured, obeyed and accepted.

So far, the marching season has been peaceful, but everyone knows the real test has still to come.

The mood at Stormont will play into the mood on the ground and that’s something the politicians – all the politicians – need to understand and think about.

Now is not the time for grandstanding.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at


  1. It didn’t take long for me to lose interest in the likely outcome of these talks!
    Just a few paragraphs from the top it mentions Merv Gibson, the spectre at the feast, being present.
    The presence of the boss of the Orange Order, ex-Special Branch man is designed solely to sabotage any chance peace talks might otherwise have.
    We all might as well just pack up our hopes and go home. The OO is genetically programmed to reject out of hand anything that might in any way be agreeable to nationalist/moderate voters.
    Thank goodness at least the World Cup is so entertaining this year, and at least we’ll have an alternative to our local gloom, doom and rioting.

  2. Lets face it..Unionism is simply about the total hatred of the Catholic youth.

    The youth wont bite the bait, work hard in education, better themselves and get involved in the democratic process.

    We will never have a good, decent, respectable society here free from sectarian flags forced on people until unionism is voted down. Its time for the youth to start voting en masse!

    • Claire
      I’m from the unionist background and support the Union but mainly for economic reasons. I don’t hate Catholics, and the issue of their friends’ religion its irrelevant for my children. I don’t feel like a second class citizen or in the midst of a ‘culture war’ which has any relevance to me. I am not offended if the Union flag flies only on designated days, but I am offended that the union flag is diminished by flying up and down the country from lamp posts beside paramilitary emblems.

      We need to be very careful about believing that the OO is accepted or supported by all unionists. The issues of flags and the doubling of parades since 2005 is as much anathema to large numbers of people from a unionist background as it is for many nationalists. Orangeism doesn’t have mass unionist support.and the issues it currently faces are mainly confined to the Loyalist heartlands of Belfast. The OO is notoriously secret about its membership numbers. The last published number I read suggested around 37,000. It would be wrong to believe that a doubling in parade numbers suggested a significant increase in OO membership. That’s why it desperately needs DUP and OO support and Loyalist muscle, just as much as the DUP and UU need the OO vote.

      In terms of our youth voting en masse… The same theme of the future in our childrens’ hands ran through President Obama’s speech in the Waterfront Hall at the G8, now a hazy memory. Lets be very clear in the current enforced coalition arrangements our youth can vote in huge number but it won’t change anything while we cannot as a people we cannot vote to choose our government. This is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy and enforced coalition is a far cry from it. If we can’t vote to actually vote to change our government then we don’t live within a democratic system. We simply shift the balance of seats at best.

      New non-aligned post Agreement political parties need to start coming forward. People never before engaged in politics and without any baggage need to start stepping up and setting out an entirely new vision for NI. A vision which not hidebound by parades flags or rewriting the past, where our children can be educated together, where paramilitaries are faced down and where bigotry and single narratives are not supported and sustained by a political system which allows politicians to do pretty much whatever they like without any sanction.

      The Belfast Agreement was a about setting a process in place which could deliver some kind of stability. What it could not deliver was the openness of spirit, the honesty and the leadership which would allow it to work. It wasn’t there in 1998, or 2007 and it seems farther away than ever now.

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