Slow but steady march on road to peaceful parades
Published 24/07/2012 | 08:00
Things are starting to look up for the Orange Order. The marching season passed its peak with less unrest and tension than probably at any time in the past 40 years.
The Order's leaders have opened new channels of communication in Dublin. Notwithstanding the ongoing opposition to the Parades Commission, the latter's rulings were adhered to - even down to bussing Orangemen and bandsmen across Belfast to meet the deadline of 4pm on the Twelfth for their return journey past Ardoyne.
Granted, rioting occurred, which caught the headlines beyond these shores with eye-grabbing, unfair reflections on a city whose citizens are proudly emerging from the past and presenting an otherwise more positive image.
Those who orchestrated and took part in the trouble in north Belfast ought to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. They have done nothing other than betray their birthright and brought disgrace upon themselves.
With their bricks and bottles and gunfire directed at hard-pressed police officers, they have shown neither political credibility nor social responsibility.
The Parades Commission only exists because agreement cannot be found on a viable alternative. We have been unable to agree on how those who gather in public places can be assured of safe passage, or, if necessary, be restricted from inflaming others.
It has been forever thus. Anyone who cares to peruse this newspaper's oldest files will find reports of sectarian friction and fighting at the same familiar places dating back to Victorian times.
We need to look forward and ask the question: can we put an end to unnecessary and unsavoury headlines in July once and for all?
That is the responsibility of politicians on all sides who have managed to agree at Stormont, but failed so far to find any viable alternative to the Parades Commission.
It is all very well berating the Commission - the 4pm Twelfth deadline was odd, to say the least - but some politicians continue to shout across the huge gulf in understanding which exists on parades, instead of actually meeting each other in the middle and trying to find a compromise solution.
On one hand, they spend time and effort - and rightly so - promoting Our Time Our Place, the new Northern Ireland. On the other, they watch, seemingly helpless, as the flames of the marching season threaten much of what the good publicity has achieved.
No section of this society can afford, in the current economic climate, to press the self-destruct button.
Who, for example, would want to invest in north Belfast and in the deprived districts on both sides of the divide around Ardoyne?
The people who live there must surely ask themselves what is the point of displaying such appallingly negative behaviour to an outside world whose help is more needed than ever?
The Orange Order shoulders the prime responsibility for ensuring that marchers and bands conduct themselves properly. There are signs across Northern Ireland that more cross-community consultation is taking place. As the years pass, the number of contentious parades has fallen.
More willingness is apparent towards altering routes, restricting numbers on parade and toning down the bands in and around sensitive neighbourhoods.
That must continue now, not through some last-minute thinking next July. Like it or not, the Orange tradition must be accommodated on this island, just as it is enshrined in the design of the Irish national flag.
The Twelfth is the high point of a unique culture, which lies at the very heart of our society. Collectively, nationalists as well as unionists in Northern Ireland cannot shirk their responsibilities to ensure that in the decades ahead we find a peaceful resolution to these age-old problems.
Burning Orange halls and displaying open antagonism and intolerance is no way to go forward. Neither can the Orange Order stand on its tradition without taking full account of the improving political partnership at Stormont, the changing relationships between Belfast, Dublin and London, and the divided demography of Northern Ireland.
For example, if the Queen, as Defender of the Faith, can enter a Catholic church in Enniskillen, isn't it about time any Orange prohibition on such an act of goodwill was lifted for good?
And can the Orange Order really continue to refuse to meet the elected representatives of the second-largest political party, Sinn Fein - given the crying need to ensure that a lasting accommodation is reached on all marches?
We are edging ever-closer to a trouble-free marching season, but much work remains to be done - by everyone.
Now, not next summer, is the time to start.