Protestant church leaders have challenged the loyal orders to prove their Christian credentials and called on unionists to accept the findings of the Parades Commission.
They branded the actions of loyalist bands who breached the law by playing music outside a Catholic church last Saturday as “sectarian”.
The unprecedented broadside from the Presbyterian Moderator Rev Roy Patton and Archbishop Alan Harper, the Church of Ireland Primate, has been greeted with incredulity by the DUP, which has refused to comment.
“We would be very clear as a Church that such behaviour is totally unacceptable and is not in keeping with the values the loyal orders espouse,” Rev Patton said.
The moderator added: “We recognise that the Parades Commission is a legally established body and that what they said should be accepted. Such behaviour is inconsistent with any profession of Christian faith.”
“I totally agree with that,” Archbishop Harper responded, describing the actions of the bands last Saturday as “blatant sectarianism”. He said: “It was totally unacceptable; it was unacceptable to me, it was unacceptable to the Church of Ireland.”
He said it was “deplorable” that those involved had proceeded to St Anne’s Cathedral.
Asked if he would consider barring them in future, he replied: “I suppose that is a possibility but I think it’s better to stay in touch and try to influence people than to completely withdraw.”
He put the onus on the loyal orders “to ensure the bands behave in a proper fashion”.
Asked whether he thought the loyal orders were a sectarian organisation, he said: “There are certain aspects of what they hold that are anti-Catholic in the sense of anti the Catholic religion, but that doesn't mean you have to be anti-Catholic people and not respect other groups' dearly held beliefs and traditions.
“How can you expect your own cultural and religious beliefs to be respected if you don't respect those of others?”
On Wednesday Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor called for a code of conduct to control bands’ behaviour outside places of worship. Rev Patton added: “They need to demonstrate that those Christian credentials are an accurate reflection of what they are as an organisation, and demonstrate that on the ground,” he said.
The senior clerics did not confine their comments to the bands and the loyal order; they criticised politicians who did not condemn the breaches of Parades Commission determinations.
“It doesn’t seem to me to be very clear political leadership. It seems to me to be avoiding the issue,” Rev Harper said.
Echoing the words of Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation, he said: “The Parades Commission is the only show in town. We need something that will help us to deal with the potentially contentious issue of parading and the Parades Commission has been put in place as the legal authority to do so.”
However, Presbyterian minister Rev Mervyn Gibson, a chaplain to the Orange and Black institutions, pronounced himself “bemused” by the moderator’s comments.
He stated: “If Roy is talking about the scuffle, or the guy walking through the protest or the police being injured, I also condemn that.”
However, he added: “If he is condemning a peaceful protest by a band playing a hymn, of course I wouldn’t condemn that.”
Last Saturday bands accompanying a Royal Black Institution parade defied a Parades Commission determination by playing music outside St Patrick’s Catholic church in Donegall Street. The previous day unionist leaders, including the First Minster, the loyal orders and the bands had signed a letter condemning the ban and the Commission. Seven police officers were hurt in the ensuing disorder. The parade proceeded to St Anne’s Cathedral for a service. A number of people have been charged.
Clerical involvement can only help ease logjam
By Liam Clarke
On the face of it, the statements by the two main Protestant church leaders puts them on a collision course with politicians who signed a letter backing last Saturday’s parade.
Their words could hardly have been plainer. Rev Lesley Carroll, who accompanied the leaders, warned that the loyal orders and unionist politicians could not judge what was sectarian “from within Protestantism”. They had to listen to Catholics and see how they judged.
And Archbishop Harper asked loyalists: “How can you expect your own cultural religious beliefs to be respected if you don’t respect the beliefs of others?”
This was all met with some bemusement within the DUP. One insider questioned whether the church leaders were in touch with what was being said in the pews.
Time will tell if the churches have their finger on the pulse or if, as one senior Orangemen told me, the whole unionist and Protestant community is seething at the treatment of the bands by the Parades Commission. He also protested that there had been far less fuss when republican marches passed a Protestant church in Dungiven accompanied by bands.
There is a debate to be had on issues of fairness and balance. Rev Mervyn Gibson of the Orange Order says he intends meeting Noel Treanor, the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, to explain that the protests were not anti-Catholic, but anti-Parades Commission.
Something could yet come of this. A joint input from the churches might help to resolve the thorny issue of parading.
MLAs should make rulings over marches, says Osborne
By Adrian Rutherford
The head of the Parades Commission has said that it is time for local politicians to take charge of making decisions on controversial marches in Northern Ireland.
Peter Osborne described it as “the next natural step”.
“The time has come — and I would certainly be the first in the queue to say let’s devolve our parading as an issue to local politicians,” he said.
Mr Osborne said a strongly-worded letter signed by unionist leaders, including DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, calling on the Secretary of State to scrap the Commission and assume responsibility himself was “unhelpful”.
“I think it's time for local politicians to take ownership and responsibility of the parading issues and that will reflect the degree of maturity within our political set-up at the minute — and I think it’s just something just naturally right to do,” said Mr Osborne.
Several bands defied a Commission ban on playing music while passing St Patrick’s Catholic church in Belfast on Saturday. One, the Young Conway Volunteers, took part illegally.
Violence flared afterwards, with seven police officers injured.
“I think there are many within the orders who along with myself would be dismayed with what happened and not in favour at all,” said Mr Osborne.
“We would say they have every right to march but the way they treat their neighbours is actually very important as well and both sides need to be sensitive.”
Meanwhile, a DUP Policing Board member has sparked anger after refusing to condemn bands who broke the law by playing music outside the church.
Jonathan Craig said he would not be “going down the line of criticising an Order that I’m a member of” when asked about the bands that defied the Parades Commission ruling in Belfast at the weekend.
He had been responding to calls from Police Federation chairman Terry Spence for unionists to do more for community relations.
There were calls for Mr Craig to condemn the bands or consider his position on the Policing Board.
SDLP MLA Alban Maginness said he needed to show leadership.
“Mr Craig should reconsider his failure to criticise those who broke the law, and if he cannot do that he should look at his position on the Policing Board. You cannot be on the Policing Board and support police, and at the same time fail to condemn those who undermine good policing,” he said.
However, when contacted, Mr Craig said it was “not for him to dictate” what should happen.
“That is a situation which is going to have to resolve itself. The Parades Commission imposed conditions which they knew to be impossible, in a practical sense, to enforce,” he said.
Asked yesterday if the loyal orders had put the PSNI in an impossible situation by breaching the rulings, Mr Craig refused to condemn their actions outright.
When asked if he agreed what they did was wrong, he replied: “They went against the Parades Commission, now what will happen out of that, as we all know, is that there will be some sanctions taken against them.”