Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Only by laying down law will proposals on flags fly

The Parades Commission should be replaced with an independent arbitration board and a separate, quasi-judicial tribunal, says Trevor Lunn

Combining a new set of regulations on parades and flags with a clear commitment from all sides to the rule of law may lead to real progress.
Combining a new set of regulations on parades and flags with a clear commitment from all sides to the rule of law may lead to real progress.
Trevor Lunn

All hopes have seemingly been pinned on the Haass talks to solve the parades and flags issue and put our political institutions back on a firmer footing.

This masks a more fundamental problem: the failure by all sides to abide unconditionally by the rule of law.

Nevertheless, combining a new set of regulations on parades and flags with a clear commitment from all sides to the rule of law may lead to real progress.

A moratorium on "sensitive" parades – as advocated by the Police Federation – is not practical. Parade organisers rarely regard their route as "sensitive".

Managing the notification process at a time of a supposed moratorium could end up causing more problems than it solves, because some independent arbiter still has to judge what is "sensitive" and what is not.

There is a strong case for replacement of the Parades Commission with a new, independent parades arbitration board (which may include political appointees) and a separate, quasi-judicial parades tribunal.

Even more urgent is a clearer set of regulations around what is reasonable and what is not. These regulations would have to have the full backing of all political and civic leaders.

The first thing to consider is the process of notification, whose principles are sound, but which is over-bureaucratic. Parades could usefully be treated in distinct categories:

* Traditional, uncontested annual parades (with no history of disruption, or local opposition), which could be registered with the new parades arbitration board to the effect of making them exempt from having to notify every year (this would apply in practice mainly to loyal order parades in rural areas);

* Contentious annual parades (with a history of disruption by those involved with the parade, or local opposition), which would continue to be notified, with a bar on consistent notifications along any previously restricted route; and

* Non-annual parades, which would be notified as currently.

The new arbitration board could have the power to exclude some organisations from parading, or remove certain locations permanently from parade routes.

This would have widespread public support, but may not be practical. Nevertheless, the arbitration board could have the power to:

* Allow a parade without conditions;

* Allow a parade with restrictions (on music, numbers, time); or

* Disallow a parade from a certain location (ie re-routing).

A new tribunal may adjudicate on breaches of restrictions, or re-routing, with the power (for a specified period) to prohibit organisations from notifying parades in a particular area, or to exclude all parades of a particular type from a particular location.

For all that, fundamentally, the solution to parading is through local dialogue and mediation. Separation of the new arbitration board from the tribunal may also enable the board to become directly involved in this.

As regards flags, these are flown as a symbol of pride, but in Northern Ireland their use has come to cause resentment in too many instances. But we will never arrive at a situation where no flags are flown, nor should we ever want to. In a free society, such a restriction would be intolerable.

The issue is where flags are displayed as a territorial marker, or as a blatant provocation.

Realistically, any requirement to notify the placing of flags on public property is likely to be ignored by some. The current law is almost completely disregarded, in any case.

Therefore, we should consider a limited set of regulations, enforced by the police, including:

* No flags to be flown at any location displaying paramilitary symbols, or names;

* No flags in the vicinity of any place of worship;

* No flags in the vicinity of a school, or any public-funded facilities; and

* No flags within, or adjacent to, new housing developments.

Trevor Lunn is Alliance Party MLA for Lagan Valley

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