Drumcree chief: it's time for the Orange Order to talk to Ardoyne residents
The leader of Drumcree Orangemen has urged his Belfast brethren to enter into immediate dialogue with nationalist residents in Ardoyne about their disputed parade.
"If both parties are willing to talk then they should get round the table and get it sorted out without delay. The residents in Ardoyne are willing to talk to the Orange. I just wish we were in that position here in my own area," said Darryl Hewitt, the district master of Portadown Number 1 District.
Concerns that trouble could return to the streets today intensified when the Parades Commission blocked a fresh application by north Belfast Orangemen to parade along the contentious route.
The Orangemen will again attempt to parade up to the police lines on the Woodvale Parade this afternoon.
There were several nights of violence after three Ligoniel lodges were stopped from parading past Ardoyne shops on the Twelfth evening.
The Ligoniel Orangemen spoke to residents shortly before their march was banned. Later some Orangemen took part in rioting, wearing sashes and wielding ceremonial swords against the police.
Mr Hewitt's intervention is significant because he speaks with the voice of long and bitter experience. Portadown Number 1 District has been protesting fruitlessly since a rerouted Orange march home from an annual service at Drumcree Church was halted by a Parades Commission ruling on July 5, 1998. Its website says the protest has already lasted 5,494 days.
The Parades Commission halted the Drumcree parade partly because the district, then led by Harold Gracey, refused to enter into dialogue with Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC). It saw GRRC as unacceptable because it included several Sinn Fein members and was led by former republican prisoner Breandán Mac Cionnaith.
In 2007, the district relented only to find that the residents refused to talk to it.
The district now applies unsuccessfully to complete the parade every week.
It has also dropped its objection to speaking to the Parades Commission, and agreed to play no music when passing nationalist areas and only to play hymns – which are also played in Catholic churches – on other parts of the parade.
"When we were willing to talk, the Garvaghy residents said there is no point talking to us because it was now a 'dead duck' issue. It is not a dead duck issue as far as we are concerned," said Mr Hewitt..
"Dialogue is the way to go if you can get it; if you have an area where both parties are willing to talk, then that makes the situation more straightforward."
"I would meet the GRRC tonight if they agreed. I am like the Martini man – I will meet them 'any time, any place, anywhere' without preconditions."
Mr Hewitt's words carry weight because of his long dedication to the Drumcree protest. Number 1 District has a special place in Orangeism because it was the first Orange organisation ever established. It was formed in 1796, a year before the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, and has more than 900 members organised in 30 lodges.
Meanwhile, there are growing signs of fractures within the Order over the tactics of the Ligoniel lodges at Ardoyne.
A senior Orangeman from the east of the province told this newspaper that although many members supported the Ligoniel lodges in principle, "there is less practical support or willingness to turn out for regular demonstrations".
He believed the protest was seen as a Belfast affair which most members hope will blow over or be resolved in talks.
An Orangeman, who joined the institution almost 40 years ago, yesterday said he was leaving his Belfast lodge due to the trouble since the Twelfth.
"Some of the Parades Commission's decisions do beggar belief and I think it has to change, I think Richard Haass is a solution," he told The Nolan Show.
"I've been involved in the Orange Order in Belfast since I was a wee boy in short trousers in 1975 and I'm currently applying to move, transfer out to the countryside where I live now, because I think they have lost the plot – just the way they conducted themselves last Friday.
"All they had to do was stop the parade 100 yards back from the cordon and say 'right, anybody that walks beyond this line you take your collarette off'.
"We're losing the respect of decent people who previously would have backed us because of what happened on Friday past. If it happens again this weekend... it's just stupidity beyond belief."