“A tree that does not bend in the wind can break, no matter how strong the roots” – By Terry Wright

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Writing in Autumn 2016 in the Foreword to a Report of the Londonderry Bands Forum, Professor Peter Shirlow, Chair and Director of the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool and Co-author of Population Change and Social Inclusion: Derry/Londonderry: September 2005 which highlighted issues of Protestant alienation in Londonderry, noted, of developments during the 10 years since the publication of the 2005 Report and the response of the PUL community to its findings:

“…what we were witnessing was the importance of emergent leadership based upon seeking solutions through evidence that was verifiable and robust. More importantly, the emotions of alienation were, through the leadership that was to develop, linked not to intransigence but to a vocabulary of inclusion seeking… to find solutions and for the politics of unionism to offer more positive visions of the Protestant communities future… So, began a journey of presenting issues through evidence and the desire to find a place within the city’s culture and its future.”

Until 2013, progress was marked but uneven, arguably due to a lack of collaborative planning for the delivery of outcomes aimed at redressing grievances and prejudice, real or imagined, and to allow movement beyond surface parity of esteem, equality and inclusion within the community. External politics and partisan leadership often acted to block further incremental development.

One area of limited progress related to traditional parades by the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Orange Order. It was the former which gave a lead, albeit focused on one issue to do with parading by the members of the organisation on the Cityside of the river Foyle and in particular on the historic walls.

The leadership in the face of internal misgivings, locally and elsewhere, came to the view that if the organisation was to regain the right to parade its historic route, particularly on the walls, then a new push towards fresh thinking must be put in place.

This centred on the opening of communication and shared explanation as to the purpose of the organisation and, to some extent, a re-branding as to its cultural and historical nature. A Maiden City Festival was inaugurated and tentative steps were taken to engage with opponents of the parade. This was a significant departure which challenged lazy stereotyping that fed into and from communal bigotry and sectarian attitudes in the city and took place in a challenging political environment wherein parades and the expression of unionist culture were presented as contentious and a cause of conflict. It laid a foundation on which to build as limited outcomes showed what could be achieved where local leadership, thinking and acting strategically, within a continuing process, could bring its own constituency towards working with a wide spectrum of opinion and stakeholders in a wider shared city context.

With the situational context shaped by tensions over parades and robust positions being adopted on all sides, it was in retrospect a risk-laden yet far-sighted strategy by the leadership of the Apprentice Boys of Derry. The timing was opportune in that other influences in the city were looking for resolution.

A mixture of politics, pragmatism, self-interest and courting, however tentatively, with reconciliation produced a solution primarily shaped by local people in a local context.

However, it is fair to note, on the basis of evidence available, that no ‘inclusive central driver or coherent and shared rationale’ was established and the different organisations involved in the process continued to exist independently with each responding periodically to narrower communal interests, priorities and pressures. The cohesive, reconciliatory and inclusive model that might have been identified as worthy of more robust development over time, did not materialise.

With no inbuilt accountability each to the other or to a shared ethos, this rendered parading vulnerable to forces and strains better managed collectively to allow moving beyond crisis-driven surface aims of damage limitation and a lingering sense of ‘what has been given up.’ The issues which had caused the difficulties could re-emerge especially where negotiation, accommodation and pragmatism were the main factors which shaped the process.

Whilst acknowledging that you cannot force complex change, with boundaries and readiness for change remaining blurred and needing time, capacity was not built and there was no long-term commitment to pursue restructuring and re-culturing. A sense of false certainty resulted and when the immediate pressure was relieved participants reverted into old attitudinal silos.

It is in these circumstances where an organisation, acting on its own and solely to its own purpose, without due cognizance of how and why agreement was reached and the need for the process to be sustained, can disturb a fragile status quo and undermine its own best interests. The soldier ‘F’ incident which occurred in August this year, points to the truth of this. The lifeboat became the source of a fresh storm for everyone.

It can also, by seeming to assume responsibility on its own, inadvertently allow itself to become the sole agent accountable for anything that might go awry; in this case to do with parades. However, blame or responsibility rarely, if ever, lies only with one side. When allowed to do so, it can skew or load a narrative.

It is important therefore, when in a contentious situation, to ‘capture’ the commitment to clear aims and objectives of all participants so that any departure from them for cynical or partisan political reasons can be addressed collaboratively. The whole community should take ownership.

This requires going beyond negotiation on to the higher moral ground of leadership for sustainable peace-building and reconciliation and elimination of the underlying prejudicial issues which have produced the ‘crisis’ in the first place. It does not require the abandonment of long-held and valued practices but it does necessitate reflection and connection with the wider environment in which these are expressed and how misconception and perspectives may promote challenges or afford the opportunity for opposition.

As another annual parade approaches imminently, recent and current reports suggest that the issue or normalization of parading has, as yet, not been fully achieved. It is being managed in terms of conflict management and the wider view remains that the parade is the catalyst for community tension or disorder when it arises. The analysis lacks balance particularly in the ill-considered claims of some local politicians that the city is in the ownership of one political community.

There is reference to a ‘Derry Model’ in respect of ‘the handling of the parades issue’, the implication being that the city has developed a model of community cohesion and ‘dealing with difference’ over contentious parades that sets it apart from other places. The Maiden City Accord developed by bands, the Loyal Orders and associated bodies has acted as a pivotal element.

Community and political leaders, with some justification, have not been slow to promote the positivity and acknowledge the contribution made by individuals and organisations within the community.

Less apparent however is the element of ‘pragmatic societal arbitration ‘and ‘political calculation’ at the core of the model as ‘trees bend in the wind.’

If Derry/ Londonderry, as it now moves to manage potential threats to gains made, can engage in further learning and move beyond the insensitive behaviour in support of soldier ‘F’ by a visiting band and politicians who should have known better, the situation can be turned to community advantage.

Discussions could now turn usefully to a cultural, commemorative and celebratory Accord to which all organisations can commit. If couched in the ethos of promoting reconciliation the strength and potential turbulence of any winds that blow may be diminished.

The recent respectful behaviour of the Republican ‘Spirit of Freedom ‘ band and the desire of the Loyal Orders to eliminate any departure from the Maiden City Accord when parades take place, suggest we should seize the moment.

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