Belfast Telegraph

Signs of Ardoyne resolution may be out there... somewhere amid the grim clean-up after another violent night,

By Liam Clarke

Matt Baggott was, sources say, happy with the tone and content of yesterday's debate at Stormont. It went better than many could have predicted – the Chief Constable's call for calm words and support was largely heeded, and echoed by most.

There were signs that the parties are starting to bear down on what a shared future involves.

A general consensus that it meant both tolerating Orange marches and discussing march plans with the local communities through which they pass. That's the broad brush picture – but the devil is in the detail.

In the meantime we have a crisis with nightly protests. Police sources say their best guess, the basis on which they are proceeding, is that these may continue until Saturday and could culminate in an illegal Belfast city centre rally. The police are both planning for that, and hoping it can be averted after the positive and business-like debate.

Every day of protest carries the risk that someone will be killed or seriously injured, sparking a new crisis.

The numbers of UK police here on mutual aid is being maintained for now; some are being sent home to be replaced by others, but numbers are being held steady.

The intelligence picture is still hazy and before it settles there will be political discussions which could colour it. Richard Haass is expected here imminently to start contacts with local parties.

Protest organisers, a disparate and unpredictable group, must choose between keeping up street-level pressure to show him there is a real problem or easing off to give him some space.

Earlier this week, US Vice President Joe Biden, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness welcomed the launch of Mr Haass' all-party group, which the White House described as "a necessary step toward building a united community". The Orange Order says its protests are suspended but that some members are at protests organised by others.

It will offer further guidance after speaking to unionist politicians. The hope is it will issue a "don't do it in our name" plea to protesters.

Yesterday's speech by Mr Robinson put some pressure on the Order to make the next move.

He described the discussion as "an opportunity for elected representatives to have their say, to try to bring calm to the situation, to express a condemnation of violence, to recognise the law must be upheld and, I hope, to show a commitment to moving the situation beyond where it is at present and trying to resolve the issues."

Though he called for the Parades Commission to be replaced he stressed that, in the meantime, its determinations should be obeyed.

People who attack the police with ceremonial swords, he stated bluntly, deserved jail. There were no blank cheques for loyalist anger.

There was, running through Mr Robinson's speech, the thought that the Orange Order is not a passive observer waiting for politicians to deliver. It is, he suggested, part of the political process and should take a political way forward.

He said: "I put it to the Orange Institution, as I do to every party in the House, that there is now an all-party group set up with the purpose of agreeing an alternative to the Parades Commission.

"Let us see whether we can get that alternative. Let everyone engage with Dr Richard Haass and the all-party group."

Mr Robinson and several others referred to a failed initiative in 2010 when the DUP consulted the Order on a replacement of the Parades Commission.

Though Sinn Fein agreed to back the idea, the Order pulled out at the last moment in a close vote at Grand Lodge.

During the debate Basil McCrea, NI21 leader, said he had been told the two people who swung the vote against the reform were former UUP chief Tom Elliott and David McNarry, then a member of the UUP but now the local leader of Ukip.

It was a glance behind the scenes in the Grand Lodge where attendance, Orange sources say, was low that night. The message was that if Grand Lodge wanted something they should turn up and vote for it, not just complain afterwards.

All nationalist speakers were in favour of accepting Orange marches.

Mr McGuinness spoke of the progress made in Londonderry, where a flagship Twelfth was held this year after dialogue with locals. It was, he said, like a tale of two cities.

Nationalists criticised Orange triumphalism, citing incidents such as the burning on a bonfire the effigy of a priest who had committed suicide. There was clearly no blank cheque for it either.

Marches were seen as conditional on respect being shown to host communities, whereas for unionists the right to march on public roads was seen as intrinsic to a shared future.

This will take time to thrash out but it is not a huge gulf compared to what went before. The pity is that things were let drift so far in the last few days.

There was not a huge gulf, either, between the DUP motion and the Sinn Fein motion which sought to amend it. In an ideal world the whips would have agreed a composite which everyone could have lived with, but that degree of political maturity is some way off.

Closing the gap will fall to Mr Haass and his working group. But a start has been made.

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