Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Orange Order's misguided 'No Surrender' spirit is a gamble with little chance of success

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The Orange Order is planning protests over a decision to ban a parade passing a sectarian flashpoint in north Belfast
The Orange Order is planning protests over a decision to ban a parade passing a sectarian flashpoint in north Belfast

As the Orange Order meets today to celebrate the Twelfth, it should reflect on one simple fact – the Parades Commission only exists because it has been unable to organise its own affairs in harmony with its neighbours.

Equally, the Commission can only be dispensed with if the Order finds some other way to move forward. It will have an opportunity to do so when Richard Haass, the distinguished US diplomat and former special envoy to Northern Ireland, chairs talks on parading in the coming weeks.

Mr Haass has been given until Christmas to find a lasting solution. The Orange Order needs to focus very carefully about what input it will make and to exercise restraint in the meantime. The Order is generally, one former member told me, better at short-term tactics than long-term strategy.

We saw it when the DUP sought Orange support for the devolution of policing and justice. Then the party bent over backwards to broker a replacement for the Parades Commission with the Order and Sinn Fein. The Order appeared to agree but took cold feet and pulled out at the last minute.

Its leaders were not willing to move forward in the face of internal opposition. They were unwilling, in a word, to show leadership.

It may be a misguided form of the "No Surrender" spirit, but the Order seems to prefer to fight and be beaten or overruled, than to compromise voluntarily. The tactics the Orange Order is currently considering are unlikely to impress an objective observer like Mr Haass.

They include a stand-off this evening at Woodvale which could last days, perhaps until Tuesday's Assembly sitting. Other plans include protests across Belfast, perhaps further afield if it can be managed.

The Order is also intent on pressuring unionist politicians to pull out of good relations and shared future work, effectively halting progress on an agenda which was negotiated with the British Government and carries financial incentives.

Such demands will put severe strains on the DUP, which is eager to keep the Orange Order on-side. On the other hand, the DUP needs to keep a working relationship with Sinn Fein if it is to stay in Government. If it follows the Orange Order's line, the institutions at Stormont would be under threat.

The Order, or at least Belfast County, probably calculates that before that happens the Parades Commission ruling will be overturned, giving it a way out. It is counting on Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, to ask Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, to intervene if the Commission does not back down of its own accord. This is what Nigel Dodds, the North Belfast MP, demanded on Tuesday.

It is risking a lot on the off chance that three lodges will eventually be allowed to walk 300 yards of roadway and the Orange Order may hope for a greater victory. If it can get the decision overturned by the Secretary of State the Parades Commission would be fatally weakened, but the chances of success are low.

Judging by yesterday's statement from the Belfast County Grand Lodge, there will be plenty of airy rhetoric placing the blame for both failure and disruption with the Commission.

"The Parades Commission has created this crisis, the consequences rest firmly at their door" the Order said, washing its hands of any responsibility.

Many people, some unionists as well as Mr Haass, will disagree and feel the cost to the whole community is insanely high considering what is at stake. Not everyone can be relied on to blame the Parades Commission if the Order takes this sort of gamble.

Sammy Wilson, the DUP Finance Minister, strongly opposes the Parades Commission. Yet he is on record imploring the Orange Order not to endorse widespread protests which could choke economic recovery.

"The Parades Commission made a bad and perverse decision but the consequences of defying it would be grave," he told me.

"The only way you could defy this is to use brute force and we cannot afford for such images to define Northern Ireland again."

Besides, unless all parades can be agreed, the only feasible replacement of the Parades Commission with be with another Parades Commission. Details can be changed.

A new body could, for instance, be made more judicial in character, and forced to show more consistency in its decisions.

With different regulations it might, for example, reward Portadown Orange District's current willingness to talk to residents. Yet, whatever rules are agreed, the Orange Order will not get its own way on every occasion. It has to learn to accept this.

It must bear in mind that parading is increasing under the Parades Commission's watch. There will be 4,500 parades this year, up 6% year on year, or 3% when only loyal order parades are counted. Only 5% of the total are considered sensitive.

This is not the worst of all possible worlds. Careful thought needs to be given to how, even whether, this record can be improved on.

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