Revealed: Warring sides in secret talks to resolve Ardoyne parade dispute
Top-secret talks are being held between leading loyalists and republicans in north Belfast in a bid to solve the Ardoyne parading dispute.
Parades negotiator Jim Roddy, who was at the forefront of successful negotiations over the Apprentice Boys parade in Londonderry, has been brought in to try and help the warring parties reach an agreement ahead of the marching season, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
It is understood that leading loyalists have put forward an offer to demolish the controversial Twaddell protest camp, if republicans agree to a short, early morning Orange march past Ardoyne before the main parading season kicks off.
As part of the deal there would be no application for another return parade on the Twelfth.
According to a source close to the dispute, unofficial talks have been ongoing between senior loyalists and republicans in the area, including the PUP's Winkie Irvine and Joe Marley of the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents' Association (CARA).
It is understood that Sinn Fein members have also been actively pushing CARA towards reaching an agreement with the loyalist community.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has also been involved in unofficial talks with both parties.
However, all parties are desperate to keep revelations of their unofficial negotiations quiet ahead of the elections for fear it could hurt their votes.
The Orange Order leadership does not want to be seen to back down and the Greater Ardoyne Residents' Collective (GARC) are completely opposed to making any deals with loyalists.
A senior source close to the dispute said there is only a "small window of opportunity" for the matters to be resolved after the elections and before it is placed in the hands of the Parades Commission.
It has cost more than £18m to police the Twaddell Avenue protest camp which was set up in 2013 after Orangemen were banned by the Parades Commission from marching past the Ardoyne on their way home from that year's Twelfth of July celebrations.
Violence flared following the boycott and dozens of police officers were injured.
Protesters have maintained a presence at the interface ever since.
The small Twaddell camp consists of just a caravan, a portacabin and some toilets - but sporadic violence at the site means there has been a police presence there over the past two and a half years.
According to the source the Twaddell protesters want to get rid of the camp.
"It has become an embarrassment, an albatross, they want out of it but they don't want to lose face. The stumbling block for them is the Orange Order, who do not want to be seen to give anything away," the source said. "CARA would be quite happy to leave things as they are, but there is a real push from Sinn Fein, especially Gerry Kelly, to get this resolved, so both sides are trying to resolve it."
According to the source, both the PUP and Sinn Fein are concerned about giving away political ground before the elections, which is why the discussions are being kept top-secret.
"There won't be any way forward until after the elections. Everything being done until after the elections is unofficial and completely off the record.
"There is a small window after the elections to make a decision on how this is resolved," the source said.
He explained: "A number of options are under discussion by all parties.
"One option out there is to let them return in the morning, some day prior to the Twelfth and that is it over and done with."
The source added: "Will they get this deal through? Possibly. It will need leadership from both sides. There are people who want this to work, but there are also people who don't want it to work and would be quite happy for the status quo to remain.
"There is an opportunity to resolve this in the next couple of months. If that window of opportunity isn't taken then it will be straight back to the Parades Commission."
Central to the north Belfast negotiations is Jim Roddy, Derry's city centre manager. Mr Roddy helped to successfully negotiate between the two communities over parading in Derry.
The work has seen the city held up as a shining example of what can be achieved, with parades now mostly trouble-free.
"Jim Roddy is a key player in trying to resolve this," revealed the source.
"There is a lot of admiration for him from both communities. He is talking to the Secretary of State and both sides to use his influence to help bring about what has happened in Derry/Londonderry."