Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

New parades body cannot march to politicians' tune

I never made much of a fist of Latin; the gerundive did for me. Yet, as I thought about Richard Haass and the Parades Commission, one phrase did drift back.

It was 'Primum non nocere' (First, do no harm). Doctors are taught that.

They must consider whether it would be better to leave things alone, or adopt a cautious, conservative treatment, than to risk causing more harm than good.

The Parades Commission is widely criticised, and it seems inevitable that it will be replaced following the Haass talks.

Yet, on its watch, the number of parades declined sharply. In the lifetime of the commission, the loyal orders have begun tentative dialogue with residents' groups. In some areas, like Londonderry, this has paid off for both sides.

Things aren't perfect, but some of this improvement must be down to the existence of an independent body, not open to local political pressure, which can take swift decisions in the absence of consensus.

Before 1998, when the police took parading decisions, it was one of the factors which undermined the then-RUC.

It could also undermine power-sharing, especially in the immediate future. Next year, we have European and local government elections; in 2015, it is Westminster and, in 2016, the Stormont election coincides with the centenaries of both the 1916 Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

The idea of local politicians appointing a body to adjudicate on parades and then standing over disputed decisions is scary.

We need only look at what happened this year, when an early consensus between the five Executive parties on parading fell apart at the first sign of dispute.

Local parties could run a body which would mediate on parades and try to reach agreement on routes. Where all else fails, we need somebody who stands outside the local political rough-and-tumble to take hard decisions on whether a parade proceeds, or not.

Such a body could also produce reports on how a parading season had gone, comment on the behaviour of various stakeholders and give pointers as to what was necessary to get favourable determinations the next time.

There is a model. It is provided by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), which oversaw the paramilitary ceasefires and suggested sanctions for breaches between 2003 and 2011.

It was set up by Westminster legislation, had the backing of the British, Irish and US governments and it included members from all three jurisdictions. There were criticisms, but these were people who could apply international standards and who clearly stood above the pressures of the local political scene.

There could be a role for such a body to help us through unresolved parading disputes in the next few years.

If it did its work and things moved forward by, say, 2017, then it might, like the IMC, be dissolved with all-party support.

Replacing the Parades Commission is one thing; tossing toxic decisions straight into the lap of local politicians is more dangerous.

Primum non nocere: Dr Haass should consider a somewhat more conservative treatment to avoid harming the patient.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk