Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Ban on return parade past Ardoyne on Twelfth: 'nuclear option' deployed ... now we await the fallout

In recent years police officers have been pelted with petrol bombs, bricks and bottles while trying to keep the peace following the annual Orange Order demonstration past Ardoyne. Shots have also been fired and last year an explosive device was also hurled towards police lines.
In recent years police officers have been pelted with petrol bombs, bricks and bottles while trying to keep the peace following the annual Orange Order demonstration past Ardoyne. Shots have also been fired and last year an explosive device was also hurled towards police lines.

It was a day of delay, and then of drama. Delay as the overdue determination of the Parades Commission was repeatedly pushed back as the stage was prepared for the release of its ruling.

It looked like choreography.

A policing announcement of hundreds of additional officers from Britain and the teatime statement urging calm from political leaders were the big developments before the decision was announced.

Within it, the "nuclear option" reported in this newspaper last weekend – no return parade on Friday evening.

After failure to achieve agreement in weekend talks involving Orangemen, residents and others, the decision was left to the Parades Commission.

It was never going to be universally popular. The commission is made up of five men and two women.

On his Twitter account Peter Osborne uses these words to describe himself: "Public affairs and policy; peace building and reconciliation. Enabler and activist. Gets hands dirty. Always learning. Frustrated Liverpool fan. Views my own."

After this controversial march determination, he knows everyone will have an opinion of him.

There is no mention on Twitter of his role as chairman of the Parades Commission – a job of sleepless nights requiring the thickest of skins.

This is the body that is the umpire when it comes to marching and protesting; a group of seven people who hear regularly from those who know best.

They have to think beyond all that and make their own impossible decisions, this one in north Belfast by far most difficult.

Always in the background there is the sound of war drums – the dire predictions of consequences. It is a familiar beat, heard long before the commission was formed and dating back into the worst days of parading confrontation in places such as Drumcree.

Above that noise, people have to try to think clearly about what they are doing and why.

On this decision, they will have thought long and hard.

Alongside Peter Osborne the others on the Commission are:

* Former Chief Electoral Officer Douglas Bain.

* Retired police officer Frances Nolan.

* Rev Brian Kennaway, an authority on Orangeism.

* Delia Close, a retired teacher and former member of the Women's Coalition.

* Robin Percival, who had a central role in talks and agreements on Londonderry parades.

* George Patterson, a management consultant and specialist on equality legislation.

Their decisions are made in Windsor House in Belfast's Bedford Street.

The determination came after a weekend of dialogue involving representatives of local lodges, residents and others, including the MLAs Gerry Kelly (Sinn Fein) and Alban Maginness (SDLP), PUP leader Billy Hutchinson, fellow loyalist Winston Irvine and senior republican Sean Murray.

These were discussions at the eleventh hour, talking that was always going to leave the decision to someone else.

And the commission is a reminder of political and community failure – the inability to answer the big questions on flags, parading and the past.

In 2013 Ardoyne is not a new headline or a new problem.

It has been with us for years, not something that grew out of the story of the dissidents.

I reported from there when plastic bullets were fired as if they were two a penny and when police officers on the frontline fell under a barrage of bricks, bottles, petrol bombs and anything else the crowd could get its hands on; when mainstream republicans were pulling the strings.

So, this was a place of parading and protest long before the Greater Ardoyne Residents Coalition (GARC) arrived.

They were not part of the weekend dialogue.

A decision was taken to meet with Cara instead, the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association, because this is the group seen as having the support of local elected representatives.

There was, of course, significance in the steps taken by the lodges, described by Irvine as "the crossing of a very important Rubicon".

But there was a risk in this for Cara – a risk that if it got nothing out of the dialogue and the commission's determination it could be thrown to the wolves.

Remember GARC dismissed the weekend dialogue as "a cynical ploy to dictate a loyalist agenda". In its opinion, the talks had one purpose; to secure a march both down and up the road this Friday.

Others were also suspicious of the timing of the dialogue – late and very last minute. Was it an attempt to salvage something from a situation in which there was wide speculation that the evening ruling could go against the Orange Order?

There was a big hint of the possibility of such a decision and its consequences at a meeting last Thursday, a follow-up to the recent Cardiff talks.

At that meeting in a Belfast hotel concerns about the possible Twelfth determination were raised by a unionist politician.

Then last Saturday this newspaper reported what one source called the "nuclear option" scenario of no return parade.

That ruling has now been confirmed by the commission.