Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Politicians have bee on their bonnet

Gerry Kelly's antics only looked like Groundhog Day. In fact, it's worse than that. Time to scrap the Parades Commission and make the politicians step up to the plate, says Alex Kane

Gerry Kelly in front of Land Rover at protest in north Belfast
Gerry Kelly in front of Land Rover at protest in north Belfast

Last Friday night, an awful lot of people across Northern Ireland will have tuned into the news, shrugged their shoulders, heaved a very heavy sigh of frustration and thought, "Here we go again. Another Groundhog Day."

It was the official start of the marching season and loyalists and republicans were accusing each other of breaching guidelines set down by the Parades Commission (even though neither side has any particular respect for the commission).

Both sides – including political representatives – accused the police of being tougher on their side than the other side.

Self-styled 'community workers' from one side highlighted the intransigence of self-styled 'community workers' from the other side.

Everyone interviewed insisted that they were "innocent marchers", or "legitimate, peaceful protesters" – although, for good measure, most of them also blamed the media for "covering up the truth".

Meanwhile, providing a touch of novelty and additional newsworthiness to the occasion, Gerry Kelly swapped an Ulster fry for a PSNI grille and allowed himself (and he clearly did allow himself) to be nudged a few yards down the road, but not before he made sure that Sinn Fein's camera crew was close to hand.

From the comfort of an armchair about 60 miles away, Francie Molloy, Sinn Fein's Mid Ulster MP, tweeted: "PSNI still the old RUC when they get the chance."

This, of course, is the RUC which Sinn Fein and the IRA regarded as "legitimate targets" until comparatively recently. Many other Sinn Fein-supporting tweeters argued that PSNI tactics were "making the case for the dissidents".

Peter Robinson accused Kelly of being reckless. Alban Maginness and Conall McDevitt raised concerns about the PSNI's tactics. Loyalist protesters charged during the Union flag protests say that they did far less than Kelly, yet ended up in court and prison. And so it went on and on and on and on.

But don't kid yourself that this is Groundhog Day territory, because it isn't. In that film, Bill Murray's character decides – eventually – to change, rather than accept his fate and takes the opportunity to make a difference every single time he has to relive the day.

We don't do that here. We go on doing the same thing. Oh, yes. We pretend that we are doing something different and organise events like the Cardiff talks and draw up fancy agreements and declarations: yet the reality is that no strategy seems capable of withstanding first contact with a parade or demonstration.

Why is that? I mean, how difficult is it to sign up to an agreement and then do everything required of you to implement the agreement?

Well, it's a bit like the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement: parties signed up to them, yet had entirely different and mutually contradictory interpretations of what the agreements entailed.

To put it more bluntly, they signed because they had to sign (not signing would have been an indication of massive failure) – not because they wanted to sign.

I'm not sure there can ever be agreement on parades, because parades are the ultimate test of the tensions that underpin our us-and-them culture.

A parade involves a very clear understanding of what is "our" territory and what is "your" territory.

The Parades Commission (which only exists because the political parties are too afraid to take responsibility for us-and-them decisions) is the easy-to-blame stooge and the poor old police have to uphold a judgment, in which they have to push people into, or away from, territory which they regard as their own.

There is a tendency to dismiss these confrontations as pretty small beer in the great scheme of things, yet there are knock-on consequences, which tend to sour and damage the relationship between all of the parties-making it harder to reach agreement on a broader, 'shared future' agenda.

Ironically, many of the people who are most critical of the 'same-old same-old' of the marching season are the very people who live in their own areas, rarely if ever mixing, socialising, or schooling with people from "the other side".

In their own, albeit quieter and more middle-class way, they are contributing to the problem with their own us-and-them outlook and lifestyle.

This is a problem which needs a political solution; and that solution can only be provided by the Assembly and the Executive.

The Parades Commission should be abolished. It's not that any of the individual members are at fault, it's just that they cannot do their job if they are not given the necessary, unconditional support from the political parties.

So let the political parties take formal, official responsibility for parading. Let them take responsibility for creating and sustaining a framework under which parades and other cultural demonstrations can take place.

My own instinct is that most of us don't physically hate the "other side". We do worry, though, when we sense (or are encouraged to sense) that we are not being treated equally. We worry when we sense that the balance is being weighted too far against us.

Our parties and representatives need to take responsibility for decisions, rather than simply farming them out to third parties. That way madness lies.

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