Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Theresa Villiers needed to strike a very delicate balance to keep both sides on board

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

The plan was that, by the end of this week the Secretary of State would announce a new parades initiative for north Belfast.

But she has had to pause to give a bit more thought to what she heard in a series of meetings.

Ms Villiers was testing political opinion on the idea of a panel and a process to help dig marching out of the mud on the Woodvale/Ardoyne interface.

But, late on Tuesday, there was concern about Sinn Fein's position on the plan. And, by yesterday morning, the SDLP had publicly outlined its thinking.

Alex Attwood described a meeting with the Secretary of State as both "plain-speaking and tough".

"She didn't get beyond first base," he said, meaning the SDLP had not given her the opportunity to explain her proposal.

The reason for that is clear. Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein see this move as a concession to a demand, that it was something quickly thought up after Ms Villiers met the combined unionist leadership last week.

That delegation included Peter Robinson, Mike Nesbitt, Billy Hutchinson and representatives of the Orange Order.

On the specific issue of the north Belfast parade, a panel or a process that doesn't have SDLP or Sinn Fein buy-in is going nowhere.

This newspaper floated a similar idea, and the Parades Commission has described the need for some wider framework.

The suggestion that I have heard is that the panel could review past initiatives in north Belfast, identify the key stakeholders, through dialogue and mediation try for a local agreement and, in the absence of that, bring forward a report of findings. This initiative would be funded, structured and it would be time-limited.

There was a balance for the Secretary of State to find. She had to do enough to keep unionists on board and prevent any further moves in the "graduated response" to the July 12 north Belfast march ruling, and she had to present any initiative in a way that wouldn't be interpreted by Sinn Fein and the SDLP as undermining the authority of the Parades Commission.

Things seem to have stumbled between the two, leaving the parties still marching in different directions.