Is there any way to resolve the current impasse over the Orange return parade through Ardoyne?
Many might want to write off the situation as an insane row over a six-minute walk which threatens to destabilise the political institutions. Yet issues of freedom, rights and identity matter to both communities and cannot patronisingly be dismissed.
The uncomfortable truth is that on the issue of Orange parades passing by nationalist areas, people are polarised – with views not that far from those of the Grand Lodge or GARC extending well beyond the Ardoyne interface.
The Economic and Social Research Council's Northern Ireland election study asked 1,000 voters if the Orange Order should have the right to march through nationalist areas. A better question would have replaced 'through' with 'past', but the results may still hold. 48% of Protestants – the largest single category of response – favoured unfettered parading rights for the Orange. The percentage of Catholics offering the same view was a tiny 0.3%.
There were takers for the compromise option 'that the Orange Order should march through nationalist areas only if there is prior agreement from local residents': 43% of Protestants and 27% of Catholics supported this approach. But the largest response by far amongst Catholics, at 72%, was that the Orange should not be allowed to proceed in nationalist areas. Whilst it is easy to blame orange or green 'intransigence' on parties or organisations, they reflect, as well as lead, a society and political entity built upon sectarian foundations.
What about views within the Orange Order and the DUP? Our membership survey of the Orange, published in 2011, showed that 58% believed in unrestricted parading rights. Again, a pragmatic wing was in evidence, agreeing on the need for prior negotiation, but this amounted to only 19% of members. A further 23% were undecided. That figure of 58% wanting no restrictions is identical to that found within the DUP membership. Given the significant membership overlap, the similarity is perhaps unsurprising. Almost one-third of DUP members do accept there needs to be prior agreement with local nationalists and 5% say the Orange should not march in nationalist areas.
The above data, whilst offering hints of moderation, provides little overall comfort. Yet miracles are expected from, variously, the Parades Commission, Richard Haass, the Grand Lodge, GARC, CARA, whoever. Some 86% of the Orange wants the Parades Commission abolished and 90% of DUP members believe there is prejudice against Protestants.
Even if the Parades Commission hived off responsibility for the Ardoyne return parade to another body, how would the problem be resolved?
One way could be for all groups to sign up to a Mitchell Principles style-deal, agreeing to be bound by the outcome regardless of its contents. Another might be a local referendum – but who would be allowed to take part? Face-to-face dialogue between antagonists, perhaps brokered by Haass, might help, but there is no guarantee of consensus. GARC has suggested widening a lane – a Bosnian-style bolstering of an ethnic corridor.
Meanwhile the dispute threatens to spill over into what passes for everyday political life, giving new meaning to the old line that 'every day is the Twelfth of July'.
Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of DUP and Orange Order membership surveys.