Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Real danger in Woodvale standoff

The Woodvale standoff is about more than just flags and marching. It's about votes and high politics, writes Brian Rowan

The well-established Woodvale 'peace camp' set up by protesters on Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast
The well-established Woodvale 'peace camp' set up by protesters on Twaddell Avenue in north Belfast
The UVF mural painted over one of George Best at Inverwood Court in east Belfast

Two statements – one from the Orange Order, the other from Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly – confirmed the marching standoff.

Both were a response to the latest ruling by the Parades Commission again preventing three lodges in north Belfast from walking past Ardoyne shops tomorrow morning.

Last weekend, the plan had been presented by the Orange as an initiative; something that could end the long-running protest at Woodvale.

There is now a camp there; a response to the decision not to allow the return leg of the July 12 parade on that stretch of road where Woodvale and Ardoyne stare at each other.

"A few moments of tolerance on a quiet Saturday morning can move the situation forward and create a positive platform both for the 2014 parades and the Haass talks," the Orange Order statement said.

The Parades Commission determination was delivered on Wednesday; a ruling that restated the July 12 position – the march can go no further than Woodvale Parade.

And two 's' words were used in response; the Orange Order calling the decision "shameful" –while MLA Gerry Kelly said that it was "sensible". Yesterday, as conversations continued within the Protestant-unionist-loyalist community on tomorrow's tactics – morning parade, or afternoon protest – police were planning another multi-unit operation that can be scaled up or down, depending on circu

mstances.

But in the standoff there is a bigger concern; bigger than any one day of marching and protesting.

"We can't sleepwalk ourselves into another winter of discontent," Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr told this newspaper. "Northern Ireland can't afford another winter like last."

The problem is no one has an answer to this parading and protesting puzzle. It is why it has been handed over into the all-party talks initiative being chaired by US diplomat Richard Haass.

He, along with vice-chair Meghan O'Sullivan, have the ambitious task of trying to get agreements on flags, parades and the past by December 31; the date when the current Parades Commission is due to end its three-year term.

The backdrop to those talks is a worsening political mood at Stormont and a street reaction to what loyalists are describing as "cultural war".

It is the fallout from the decision to reduce to designated days the flying of the Union flag on Belfast City Hall; that bad mood exacerbated by those rulings and restrictions on a small number of contentious marches.

But what's happening is not just about flags and marching. We can also see an effort to re-build a loyalist political project with PUP leader Billy Hutchinson a central figure on this north Belfast stage.

The phrases "cultural war", "de-Britification", "re-Britification", "unarmed resistance" and "loyalists united" can be found in his dictionary and vocabulary.

It is not just about describing the mood. There is a bigger purpose that has to do with votes and the possibility of seats in councils and at Stormont. This is the PUP goal. But how much can be achieved?

The party's performance will be measured against the Northern Ireland-wide vote achieved by the late David Ervine in the 1999 European election; a tally of 22,494. It was a "peace" vote that won't be matched or challenged by the new slogan of "cultural war".

And what about this suggestion of "loyalists united"? The reality is a still fragmented and broken family; a community of cracks.

We saw evidence of that in recent days in a very public row over the painting of a UVF mural in east Belfast; another use of a wall as a canvas to display a hooded gunman in a reminder of old days and old ways.

PUP councillor John Kyle with the "full support" of Hutchinson described the mural as "a disgrace". And the significance of those comments is this: the PUP is politically aligned to the UVF and that row – heard on radio and television and read in newspaper headlines – is about much more than a mural.

It is about why the UVF is still out there and how, on occasions, it can still get in the way of Hutchinson's effort to recreate a political project; not just in the painting of murals, but the firing of guns. There is an intelligence assessment linking the UVF to two recent shootings in east Belfast, including the brutal wounding of care worker Jemma McGrath (24).

So, there is a volatile street situation and it's playing into the high politics at Stormont.

Recently, after the first all-party session of the Haass talks, the DUP delegation left immediately for the protest camp at Woodvale. Jeffrey Donaldson MP described it as part of their wider engagement, but it was also about being seen on the ground; ground that the PUP wants to make its own; the ground out of which the party hopes the political project and votes will grow.

Loyalists argue there is also a "gearing up" for elections in the nationalist/republican community and they place Gerry Kelly's recent speech in Castlederg and his 30th anniversary tweet on the Maze jail escape inside that frame.

So the street play has many scenes. It is not just about flags and marching, but about votes and high politics.

Sinn Fein has been describing a sense of "crisis" at Stormont. That was played down by others.

But no one is denying that there are serious problems.

And the real worry is: what happens if Richard Haass can't fix them?

'The problem is no one has an answer to this parading and protest puzzler'

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