Peter Osborne: 'I was jostled and spat at in the street over the Twelfth parade ruling'
Published 16/06/2014 | 09:23
Peter Osborne, chair of the Community Relations Council, reflects on his time as former head of the Parades Commission and the impact the flags issue has had on building bridges.
Q. Having spent 20 years working in conflict resolution, integration and community relations, you join the Parades Commission in 2011. Why?
A. I spent that time and more in the field of community cohesion, community development and community relations.
I think it was a natural step to become involved in some of what are the most difficult and intractable issues here.
The other people I worked with in that field do it because they have a passion to do it, to try and make this society better and contribute to a more positive way forward.
If that is your mindset I think there is an inevitable next step in trying to apply yourself in as constructive a way to issues such as parading.
Q. The Parades Commission is loathed by a section of the unionist/loyalist community. You're from a Protestant background, brought up in Ballybeen. How did you cope with the immense scrutiny and pressure being the public face of the Parades Commission brings?
A. People kept saying and keep saying it is a thankless task and it's only when you do it you realise how thankless it is.
It is one of those roles you go into knowing you will be criticised one way or another for every decision.
That is what happens and it is pretty constant. It certainly was a thankless task. That said, underneath what people say publicly I also had very good relationships on both sides of the community, with paraders, politicians, community representatives and others involved.
Sometimes people have to step back from the perception of these things in public and actually engage more in private conversations.
Most people know where parades need to go but I think translating that privately, people know that going into the public arena is part of the challenge for political and civil leaders. In terms of my own background, one of the most difficult things people can do is sometimes standing up from within what would be perceived as your own background and saying 'guys, you need to do something a bit different here, to understand others and to move the situation forward'.
I wouldn't perceive myself as being from a particular background, there's a journey in life you go through.
But you're right, I don't think growing up in Ballybeen in the 1970s I would have imagined chairing the Parades Commission or chairing the Community Relations Council.
Q. When things were bad, last summer for example, you were getting a lot of flak, tensions were high – did you have any concerns for your own personal safety when you were out and about. Were you threatened?
A. I did. The threat was always there. I have been visited (by police) a few times to let me know to take care.
Q. Threats from paramilitaries?
A. Well, I've had conversations with the police around some of that stuff. I actually didn't have with the police last year.
Last year on one occasion I had something thrown at me, I was jostled in the street.
I had somebody spit at me and I had people verbalise some stuff at me in the street. It comes with the territory.
It didn't happen very often and most people, again, were pretty supportive.
Q. That must have been hard?
A. I think the vast majority of people here understand that when you take on a role like that you are taking on a thankless task. You have in the Parades Commission people from across civic society, doing their best to find fair and balanced answers to intractable problems.
I think people understand that and understand the need for a body like the Parades Commission.
Q. Being jostled in the street and verbally abused, was that on the back of the Twelfth determination?
A. It was last summer.
Q. Was your family with you?
A. No. I was on my own and I'm talking one or two incidents. It wasn't major.
Q. What was said to you at the time?
A. I'm not going to go into that but yeah, there were some verbals at times. But again, the vast majority of people were very supportive.
Q. Last summer we had some of the worst street disorder we have seen in recent years, particularly in north Belfast. Is a repeat inevitable in the coming weeks?
A. I don't think it's ever inevitable.
It isn't this summer and it wasn't last summer.
You have to bear in mind the context is decades and decades where there has been violence around parading and protesting against parading.
If you went back to 1969 there was serious rioting around parades on the Springfield Road. For decades parading has been the symptom of underlying community tensions and so there always has been and I suspect always is the potential for violence to happen.
In recent years and decades there has been substantial violence.
There is the threat of it, there is the potential for it. It is not inevitable.
It's about what decisions people take around parades at the end of the day which will determine whether there is violence or not.
Q. Who has to make those decisions?
A. These are decisions that will be taken on the ground within communities. Unfortunately what we're left with, if that happens, is police holding the line as they have done for many, many years.
Last year, whether it be at Ardoyne, Carrick Hill or in the city centre with the internment parade, or Castlederg – the police were left in an invidious position. The resilience the police showed was quite incredible under the circumstances. Be it the Parades Commission, community reps, the Orange Order, whoever, must ensure the opportunity to resolve these issues is captured and people take reasonable risks to make that happen.
Q. Six minutes would have completed that walk along the Crumlin Road last Twelfth. The public purse would be at least £9m better off. With hindsight was the decision of last year the right one?
A. I think it was. I'm not going to comment on the commission's decisions now.
Where that area is at, along with other areas – there is a real opportunity to resolve Ardoyne once and for all.
There are six or seven parades go down or up that road every year. This is one of those. It is the end of a 10 or 12-mile overall parade. The dialogue that there has been since the early 2000s didn't reach resolution. There were offers and counter-offers on the table and people may reflect back now and think why didn't we do the deal then. Unfortunately from 2012 to 2013 it wasn't possible to get that dialogue started.
I think there was an inevitability about the decision the commission took. Privately people might understand that now.
Q. How realistic is it for a resolution to be reached? Is the Orange Order ever likely to complete the march?
A. I'm not going to comment on whether there is a parade up the road or not. That is with the current commission and they need tot take that decision based on the evidence they have before them. Whatever that resolution looks like is up to the participants. Is it possible? I think it is. A fair wind with people being motivated to find a way forward and reach agreement, supported by political parties on all sides and civic society.
I think the conditions to get a resolution are better than they were in the past. But it is about people being motivated to find a fair and balanced resolution to do it on both sides.
Q. The commission has been accused of bowing to the threat of republican violence last year. Did it?
A. It wasn't the overriding role at that time. The commission then and now is obligated to take a number of things into account. Those things include the potential for public disorder, they include the impact on community life and they include the impact on community relations and one or two other things as well.
The greatest factor in the decision last year was the impact on community relations and community life. That was in the context of 12 months when it hadn't been possible to get dialogue started other than five or six days before the actual parade itself.
In that context in terms of impact on community life, the human rights articles we had to take into account as well as impact on community relations, that's what drove the decision more than potential for disorder.
I'd be surprised if the thought-processes or the information the commission had changed from last year.
Q. Before you stepped down from the commission you called for stronger political leadership and for leaders to step up to the plate.
A. I don't think I said it like that. It was when there were a number of parades into the city centre, disrupting trade. I talked about bad leadership in terms of the organisation of some of those on a Saturday afternoon. I hadn't actually directed that at the politicians as such. There has been some very good, very positive political leadership.
What I probably referred to at times was that in order to take some of the pressure off police when you look to try to resolve parading issues or you look to try to take action around flags issues, or murals, etc, for the agencies such as police to take a different line on some of those issues they really do need to be able to depend across the board on politicians supporting not just law but police and others supporting the law.
It makes the job of the police much more difficult if they don't have immediate political consensus supporting the actions they take in order to uphold the law.
Q. How damaging to community relations have rows over flags and parades in the past 18 months been?
A. A recent survey by the University of Ulster shows since the flag dispute started towards the end of 2012 there has been a hardening of some opinion around the flying of flags and there has also been a deterioration, to some extent, in terms of how people from a Protestant or Catholic background view the potential for good community relations in the years to come.
So in other words we have taken a step back, according to the survey.
I think, given what we've come through over the last 18 months, that's not a particular surprise.
There is very clearly a need for good community relations and building community relations.
We have a political agreement or agreements from 1998 on and they were hugely important but actually we really do need to build that peace.
It will take decades to do. It is in some ways the most difficult and complex work to do the peace-building and reconciliation work that is needed.
We're in the middle of that process and there will be ups and downs, that is just the ebb and flow of peace-building in a process like this.
Q. We have also seen a massive spike in race attacks recently. Why do you think this is?
A. There have always been race-hate words and actions, so it isn't new that it's happening.
There has certainly been an increase and I'm not entirely sure why that is.
We need to have a co-ordinated approach to it. The fact we haven't a racial equality strategy, still, after seven years is an indictment of government.
I don't think there is enough awareness or education of the benefits to us all in having a really diverse, multi-cultural society.
Q. What work is the Community Relations Council involved in? What's your vision for the next couple of years?
A. It's an arm's-length body of OFMDFM but it also operates independently. So it will do research, facilitate research and also work with communities on the ground to develop their relationships through different structures and on different issues.
So the research and the facilitation of conversations, dialogue and processes around very sensitive issues are at the core of what the council does.
It works with groups on the ground and will award funding for peace-building work and reconciliation. If you take that over the course of a year the CRC would distribute around £2m of funding.
I think there's an issue there for CRC and a challenge we would put back to government which is dealing with these issues of relationships and community relations is absolutely core to moving forward.
We can invest all we want in creating jobs, and it's very good that we do, or on social policy or on welfare, or housing or health, but those answers aren't going to be sustainable unless we tackle our underlying community relations problems.
Q. This is Community Relations Week throughout Northern Ireland. What's in store?
A. This week we facilitate the showcasing of the incredibly good work that is going on.
There are about 200 events in total.
For the first time every single council area will have at least one event showcasing their work.
Of course this is work happening every day of the week.
But this week is an opportunity to showcase that work, people get involved in attending those events, and we hope that people will become aware of some of the work going on on the ground and get involved in the debates.
We hope people will get a better understanding about community relations around tackling sectarianism and tackling racism.