Time is running out as fuse lit on parading powderkeg
Published 25/02/2013 | 04:20
The clock ticks on towards the spring and summer marching season, but still no white smoke emerges from any Stormont chimney.
As of now, we are heading towards another Twelfth with no resolution in sight for the 3% of parades which have the potential to cast the darkest of shadows over Northern Ireland.
The entire community is being held to economic ransom every summer and the damage is shared by unionist and nationalist communities alike.
If politicians are to take more responsibility for parades – and that in itself is a big 'if' – they will need to show more leadership and courage than they have in the past.
Unionist leaders will need to exercise more influence over the Orange Order, which organises the majority of contentious parades and cannot be allowed to act as if it was a law on to itself.
Nationalists and republicans will, likewise, have to persuade their communities to adopt a less hostile attitude. Whether either side is capable of such a level of control remains extremely doubtful, which is why the Parades Commission is so necessary.
We know well in advance where the trouble-spots are. Every year, the hand-wringing message goes out – this must never happen again – but it does again and again and again.
It is much too trite for unionist politicians to blame the Parades Commission when they themselves have failed to come up with a viable alternative form of mediation.
So let us look at 2013. Just as the dogs in the street knew taking down the flag on Belfast City Hall would do nothing for inter-community relations and would lead to street unrest, so we know which parades have a similar potential.
Parades this summer through Newtownbutler and Raskarkin are particularly worrying, because the population is overwhelmingly Catholic. In Belfast, the danger signals will centre on Whiterock and Ardoyne, while Drumcree is as unresolved as ever.
Engage in dialogue or risk disorder? That is the choice facing the Orange Order, in particular, as it persists with a handful of parades near, or through, nationalist neighbourhoods, where the marchers are clearly unwelcome.
More mediation is urgently required. There were encouraging signs last year that the Order had started to see some sense at last and was prepared to engage in more talks with Catholic, nationalist residents.
Talking is the only way. Resolution is needed. Northern Ireland cannot afford to add to the enormous bill for policing and danger to life and limb already incurred as a result of flag protests.
Nothing should take more priority at Stormont, given that trouble over any march has the potential to undo the positive image which Northern Ireland needs to restore after the disgraceful disorder of recent months.
The undercurrent of ill-feeling and unrest within the unionist community, reflected in the flag protests, should be an added incentive to resolve the parading issue once and for all.
If Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness could achieve this, with the support of the Protestant Orders on one hand and nationalists and republicans on the other, it would be a huge boost for the peace process and political stability.
The Parades Commission can only achieve so much. The Commission's chairman, Peter Osborne, told a Stormont committee this month that the number of "sensitive" parades had dropped below 200 in 2012.
Paul Givan, a DUP MLA, was dismissive.
"The Parades Commission does not have my support, does not have my party's support," he retorted, and went on to accuse the commission of being "anti-Protestant".
Frances Nolan, a member of the commission, said she took "real offence" at the accusation. "I was brought up in a very strict unionist background and my father was an Orangeman all his living days," she said.
Mr Givan and other unionists seem determined to destroy the credibility of the Parades Commission.
But what is their alternative?
True, as Mr Givan argued, the commission is unaccountable to Stormont and unrepresentative of the community at large in terms of the political background of its appointees.
Perhaps the time has come to expand the commission to include nominees of the Stormont Executive and to introduce some form of local democratic accountability.
In the meantime, the clock ticks on towards the Twelfth and no one can afford complacency.