Future of NI powersharing in doubt
The future of the powersharing administration in Northern Ireland was again in doubt tonight after unionist parties walked out of a political talks process in protest at the banning of an Orange Order parade.
The Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists said that collapsing negotiations on outstanding peace process issues at Stormont, to highlight their anger at the ruling by the Parades Commission adjudication body, was the first stage of a "graduated response".
The next step of that strategy appeared to materialise tonight when DUP Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson pulled out of a scheduled joint meeting tomorrow in Dublin with Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Irish premier Taoiseach Enda Kenny and deputy prime minister Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.
In issuing its determination this morning, the Government-appointed commission cited the potential for public disorder and negative impact on community relations among its reasons for preventing the contentious July 12 evening parade proceeding along north Belfast's Crumlin Road, which is adjacent to the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood.
While both loyalists and republicans have engaged in serious rioting linked to the parade in recent years, the DUP and UUP insisted the commission had given in to the threat of republican violence.
The two main unionist parties issued a joint statement endorsed by a range of smaller unionist and loyalist parties in the region, including two with links to paramilitary groups. All the signatories said they were also cutting ties with the Parades Commission.
As the Orange Order denounced the decision as "preposterous", Mr Robinson said the commission's stance had put the powersharing institutions in danger.
"The institutions have been put under threat by the behaviour of the Parades Commission and those who threaten the Parades Commission," he said.
"It is up to us to seek a peaceful response."
Mr McGuinness, who said the region was in for a "fraught couple of weeks", expressed disappointment that the North South Ministerial Council meeting in Dublin Castle had been cancelled.
"This is clear evidence that the Orange Order is now setting the pace for political unionism and the DUP in particular is now dancing to its tune," he said.
Earlier Mr McGuinness said unionists needed to explain exactly what "graduated response" meant.
"I hope it doesn't mean a threat to the institutions," he said.
"I have made it clear that these institutions have provided very important stability."
He added: "I tell it as it is. I think there is an awful lot of scepticism and indeed cynicism out there in regard to the willingness of unionist parties and the Orange Order to come to an agreement."
Mr Gilmore said he hoped the walkout from the Stormont talks and subsequent postponement of the North South meeting were temporary setbacks.
"The North South Ministerial Council is dealing with important issues, such as job creation and economic development, which would be of benefit to people across this island," he said.
"I would urge all parties in Northern Ireland to continue to engage constructively through all of the institutions."
In recent years when the contentious Orange Order parade was given permission to pass the Ardoyne, republicans rioted.
When it was banned last year, loyalists rioted in the nearby unionist community in Woodvale.
Loyalists have manned a protest camp at the volatile community interface ever since, requiring a policing operation costing around £10 million.
The political talks at Parliament Buildings in Belfast between the five parties in the executive collapsed on only their second day.
They were established by Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness in an effort to break the impasse on disputes over parades, flags and the past. One of the issues being debated was a potential replacement for the controversial Parades Commission.
After walking out of the negotiations, DUP Assembly member Jonathan Bell said: "Can I say it's been a very difficult morning this morning. The Parades Commission has set a very dangerous precedent, the most dangerous of dangerous precedents - they have caved into republican violence, the threat of republican violence and stated that violence pays."
UUP negotiator Tom Elliott rejected the suggestion that unionists had "thrown their dolls from the pram".
"A lot of people feel let down by what the Parades Commission has done, a lot of people feel hurt," he said.
As it did last year, the commission has given permission, with restrictions, for Orangemen to parade down the disputed section of the Crumlin Road on the morning of July 12.
It is the evening parade, when Orangemen return from traditional Twelfth commemorations elsewhere in Belfast, that has been prohibited from passing along the road.
Unionists were clearly preparing themselves for the course of action, as the lengthy statement outlining their intentions was circulated minutes after the north Belfast ruling was issued.
The statement was sent in the name of DUP leader Mr Robinson, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader Billy Hutchinson and Ian McLaughlin of the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG). The PUP has links to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) while the UPRG would have a similar political advisory role in respect of the outlawed Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
While unionists are characterising their walkout as an attempt to channel community anger through peaceful means, political rivals at Stormont were scathing about the decision to collapse negotiations.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said he was disappointed by the unionist response and called for calm.
"There is now a desperate need for people to keep calm and provide leadership in our communities. Being difficult and being angry is not going to help anyone," he said.
"The SDLP wants to make sure that the next two weeks pass off peacefully in a way that does not damage our city or our people."
Alliance party leader David Ford launched a blistering attack on the main unionist parties.
"I am horrified and disgusted by the behaviour of the DUP and Ulster Unionists," he said.
"They talked about the importance of these talks to resolve the outstanding issues that plague our community and, on a whim today, absolutely unrelated to the business in the talks, they have walked out."
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said the last thing the region needed was another outbreak of public disorder. She said it was "very disappointing" that the DUP and UUP were not continuing in the talks.
"The Parades Commission ruling and subsequent political developments today will provoke strong feelings from many in Northern Ireland but it is essential that the rule of law is respected in any reaction to what has happened," she said.
"The last thing Northern Ireland needs is any kind of public disorder which could put police officers at risk of injury or worse and which would damage Northern Ireland's reputation abroad and undermine efforts to attract jobs and investment.
"Any reaction or protest needs to be both peaceful and lawful, as called for by unionist leaders in their statement today."
Newly appointed Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable George Hamilton said police were planning for every eventuality on the 'Twelfth'.
Mr Hamilton, who appeared before the monthly meeting in Belfast of the PSNI oversight body, the Policing Board, said: "The Parades Commission have issued their determination in relation to the 12th parade in North Belfast.
"Be reassured that PSNI have been planning for every eventuality in recent months. There is no doubt that significant challenges lie ahead, however I want to reiterate our approach will be to uphold the law, protect human rights, implement the Parades Commission determination and work with communities involved to help find solutions.
"I would encourage all communities to continue to show the dignity and respect evident at recent parades and protests so that the remainder of this year's parading season passes off as peacefully as it has to date. Violence and disorder in relation to the twelfth is not inevitable - individuals have choices to make about how they conduct themselves."