Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

After hours of critical Ardoyne parade talks, just 25 words from Stormont

Brief statement exposes strain between parties

The stand-off between loyalists and police in north Belfast last year. In advance of this year's Twelfth march in the same area, the political parties could only agree a brief, bland statement urging adherence to the rule of law by both marchers and protesters

The Stormont Executive last night issued a terse 25-word statement in an effort to defuse tensions surrounding parades ahead of the Twelfth.

The bland communiqué followed hours of negotiations following an Executive meeting. It was eventually agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein in a private meeting before being circulated to the other parties as the best that could be agreed.

It stated: "The Executive agreed that all parades and parades-related protests should be lawful. The Executive acknowledges the efforts of many to ensure a peaceful summer."

The brevity of the statement will be seen by many as a signal of the strain in relations between the major parties in the Executive.

It contrasted with last year's statement on parading which expressed support for the police, acknowledged that Parades Commission determinations should be obeyed and the First and Deputy First minister jointly endorsed this approach.

Tensions have been high since the Parades Commission barred a Twelfth of July Orange Order parade from returning along part of the Crumlin Road in north Belfast.

Following the decision, unionist parties pulled out of talks on parades, flags and the past. They have pledged a "graduated response" in protest at the commission decision but have not revealed details of what that response will entail.

"This year's outcome is underwhelming," admitted one source involved in the deliberations. Minsters emerging from the meeting attempted to put a positive spin on the fact that something had been agreed – but each of them put a different emphasis on what was agreed.

"I made it very clear at the meeting that the only way forward in terms of parades is that they take place in a dignified and respectful way and they are met with understanding and tolerance from those in the surrounding areas," said Peter Robinson, the First Minister, putting the emphasis on the rights of marchers.

John O' Dowd, the Education Minister, spoke for Sinn Fein, saying: "The Executive has agreed a joint statement calling for all parades and related protests to remain lawful. Clearly this must include the acceptance of the lawful decisions of the Parades Commission."

Ministers also discussed financial matters relating to individual departments' budgets and European Union funding during the meeting.

Afterwards Alliance leader David Ford called for "a reboot of the Stormont system to prevent the cycle of crises that have affected progress at the devolved institutions".

Mr Ford issued a hard-hitting statement calling for the system of Government to be completely revamped to avoid continued deadlock.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that the current difficulties flowed from the inability of Sinn Fein and the DUP to work together in Government.

"The problem at the moment is that we have two parties, each of whom has a veto over anything happening. If we had a voluntary coalition and one party withdrew, then other parties could continue the Government."

In his statement, Mr Ford, the Justice Minister, listed seven reforms which, he argued, could create a better functioning and more stable political system.

They included:

  • A coalition which is decided through voluntary negotiation between parties and subject to a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Collective responsibility must apply.
  • Replacing the Petition of Concern system, which has been abused, with a qualified majority system.
  • An opposition, free from the voluntary Government, with the opportunity to properly hold the Government to account.
  • Greater co-operation between Ministers requiring them to work together under law.
  • All Executive policies should be required to be 'shared-future proofed' to ensure that all public investment supports and underpins an open, peaceful and united society rather than continuing division.
  • An end to sectarian designations in the Assembly.
  • Letting the public know who donates money to our political parties.

The Petition of Concern he mentions is a blocking mechanism which allows any 30 MLAs to require a cross-community vote before any measure is approved. Once a petition is invoked, either Sinn Fein or the DUP have the power to block the proposal.

"For too long now public services and the entire community have been held back as a result of the almost complete failure of leadership over crucial issues and the breakdown of functioning relationships between the two main political parties," Mr Ford said.

"It is clear to me that things must be done differently at Stormont."

He added: "The public deserve better – we should no longer accept the status quo. A lack of commitment and ability to work professionally is stifling social cohesion, damaging communities and the prospects of our young people, and impacting on economic success."

Factfile

The agreed statement in full: "The Executive agreed that all parades and parades related protests should be lawful. The Executive acknowledges the efforts of many to ensure a peaceful summer."

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