Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Unionists defend parades proposal

The parades issue has proven divisive in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's First Minister has insisted a proposed commission of inquiry into a vexed parading dispute in Belfast would not be a lop-sided pro-unionist vehicle.

Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson was responding to criticism from Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who described his suggested means of resolving the Crumlin Road stand-off as a "nonsense" that would be no substitute for resuming stalled cross-party talks on outstanding peace process issues, including parades.

Mr Robinson, accompanied by a range of other unionist representatives, and Mr McGuinness both met Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers separately at Stormont to outline their very different opinions on the prospect of an inquiry.

The Government is still considering whether to respond positively to the request from pro-Union parties to establish the probe.

A coalition of unionist and loyalists politicians and Orange Order leaders called for the commission of inquiry to be set up after the Parades Commission adjudication body again stopped a loyal order parade passing the nationalist Ardoyne area of the Crumlin Road on the evening of July 12.

The pro-Union political representatives, who have pledged a "graduated response" to highlight their opposition to the Parades Commission determination, have warned that their co-operation in various levels of governance will be affected if a probe was not ordered by the Government.

Emerging from the meeting with Ms Villiers at Stormont House, Mr Robinson said an inquiry would not work if it was not backed by all shades of opinion.

"There is a need for people to objectively look at the issue rather than saying 'this comes from unionism therefore we are against it because we are nationalists or republicans'," he said.

"This is not a one-sided commission, this is a commission that would be talking to everyone who wants to give evidence to it, this is a commission that will want to speak to organisations from the nationalist community just as they will want to talk to the Orange institution and to the political parties.

"So there is nothing one-sided about this. This is an attempt to focus in, to hone in on one area where there is a difficulty to see if we can find a resolution which in itself will not only resolve the parading in that area but might have lessons for elsewhere."

In its determination, the Parades Commission did advocate some form of new framework to finally try and find a solution to the long-standing dispute.

But Mr McGuinness insisted that a commission of inquiry was not the way to deal with the issue. He said a better way was for all parties at Stormont to get back around the table to hammer out an agreement on disputes over parades, flags and the legacy of the past. The DUP and Ulster Unionists walked out of the latest talks initiative in protest at the Parades Commission determination on Ardoyne.

"The type of inquiry that is being proposed by the unionists is a nonsense in my view," Mr McGuinness said after his own meeting with Ms Villiers.

The Deputy First Minister said he was prepared to look at issues outside of the remit of the Parades Commission but would not support anything that would undermine the integrity of the adjudication body.

He added: "What I am saying very, very clearly and it should not be lost on the unionist leaders, is the situation at Ardoyne isn't going to be resolved by them cobbling together an agreement for an inquiry with Theresa Villiers to the exclusion of everybody else, that is not the way this process has moved forward successfully over the course of the last 20 years. It needs to be a process that everyone signs up to."

The Sinn Fein veteran insisted his party was approaching the issue in problem solving mode.

"What unionist leaders need to recognise is that there can be no lop-sided approach to the resolving of the situation at Ardoyne, the responsibility to resolve the situation at Ardoyne rests with all the parties and all of the stakeholders."

But Mr Robinson rejected that characterisation.

"Let's be very clear - we want to get cross community support for this kind of proposition, it doesn't fully work unless there is," said the DUP leader.

"There is no point setting up a commission only to talk to unionists. So let's be very clear - this isn't one sided, let's dispel this thought, the Deputy First Minister is wrong if he think that's our intention."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who accompanied Mr Robinson during the hour long meeting with Ms Villiers, said a decision on the commission of inquiry had to be made sooner rather than later.

"We impressed upon the Secretary of State that time is of the essence here," he said.

"We want to see a process kicked off as soon as possible, reporting before the end of this calendar year.

"She (Ms Villiers) took that on board but she was not able to indicate today when she will give her final decision."

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