Ardoyne parade proposal: It is an idea that just might offer a way forward
The unionist leadership have put themselves out on a limb for the Orange Order. All concerned will lose credibility if tomorrow's Twelfth of July celebrations do not pass off peacefully.
If the day is anything less than a family and cultural celebration the co-operation of the DUP and UUP with the loyal orders and political associates of loyalist paramilitaries will be hard to justify.
After a turbulent week of walkouts and threats there are some signs that things could work with a little commonsense. The positive signs came at a Press conference in an Orange hall. The centrepiece of this gathering was a proposed commission of inquiry – first put forward by the Belfast Telegraph – into the parading situation on the disputed section of Crumlin Road at the Ardoyne shops.
Predictably, there was wariness from nationalists. Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly senses a bid to undermine the Parades Commission. "Unionists are asking for a commission of inquiry simply because they didn't get their own way. Neither unionists nor the British Secretary of State should do anything to undermine it," he warned.
That is not what the Belfast Telegraph proposed. We asked for a body which would look at the context, involve all stakeholders, and make recommendations for next year. Something similar has been hinted at by the Parades Commission itself, in its determination just over a week ago. It said that "wider issues influencing attitudes to parading need to be addressed by a structured, managed, cohesive approach which provides a framework into which whole communities can contribute, have their voice heard and formulate a creative response."
The Parades Commission has already complained to the Secretary of State that it is being asked to consider social and political issues outside its remit. In its determination it asks for new structures with adequate resources to examine the wider context of parading along Crumlin Road. The commission says it is willing to help but, as the body that adjudicates, it cannot become too deeply involved.
Mr Kelly should give this idea a fair wind and help shape it. It is unlikely that the Secretary of State will put anything in place that does not command a cross-community buy-in.
The commission of inquiry should, this paper suggested, be able to commission market research to gauge local opinion and should be headed by an independent figure with no axe to grind. A lawyer from Scotland, which has a similar parading culture but fewer disputes, might be a good choice. Academics might also be involved. Professor Jon Tonge, who has conducted studies of both the Orange Order and the DUP and is working on a similar project on dissident republicans, might be a suitable choice.
Such a body must report in good time for its findings to be implemented before next year's parading season and it should make a specific recommendation on the route. In the meantime, it must be given space to operate. It cannot work against a background of escalating protest and crisis in the political institutions.
Last week both unionist leaders said that unless and until a replacement was found Parades Commission determinations must be obeyed because they were the law. Peter Robinson even demanded an apology from the BBC for allegedly suggesting he had omitted to say this. We need to hear such statements again.
Writing in this newspaper, Dr Tonge suggested a set of principles, like the Mitchell Principles, which built confidence and trust during earlier peace negotiations, to be signed up to be all parties to the dispute. Yesterday the loyal order and unionist representatives all signed a rudimentary pledge committing themselves to democracy as well as obedience to the law and civil and religious liberty.
What needs to be added is an unequivocal commitment to abide by the findings of any commission or process which is established.
In a democracy, governed by law, people need to be prepared to accept decisions which do not go entirely their way.
Above all, what is needed is a local agreement with active support from London, Dublin and, if needs be, Washington and Brussels.