Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Cabinet reshuffle left Theresa Villiers in Northern Ireland to tackle parade logjam

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

Like Peter Robinson, Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, still has a job to do here. Before yesterday's Cabinet reshuffle the air was thick with speculation that she would either be sacked or, at least, moved.

The Times quoted unnamed sources describing her as "out of her depth", too stiff and less than impressive. It is true that she has a reserved manner, but the reality is that Ms Villiers seems to have grasped her brief fairly well.

Unlike her predecessor Owen Paterson, she has announced no major initiatives or big ideas. But then most of his came unstuck.

The pressure will be on her in the coming months to be more than a safe, but cautious, pair of hands. Both London and Dublin are concerned that the peace process has hit turbulence and there is a need for the two governments to step in to put talks on the big topics of flags, parading and the past back on track.

As early as Tuesday she must meet the unionist leaders and representatives of the loyal orders to discuss parading in north Belfast.

She will be under pressure from the Orange contingent to scrap the Parades Commission and replace it with something else. She is likely to resist that, pointing out that any replacement must be generally agreed in Northern Ireland and, until there is agreement, we need a Parades Commission.

The demand for a commission to look into the parading situation in north Belfast also needs to be handled with care.

She needs to do something and she needs to make sure that what she does implement is as near as possible to the original proposal put forward in the Belfast Telegraph two weeks ago and adopted by Peter Robinson, the DUP leader.

This commission, led by a senior lawyer, would facilitate dialogue on the issue between parading bodies and residents. It would sample opinion and undertake research.

Before next marching season, it would make a recommendation on how to proceed with that specific parading problem. It might also identify some general principles which could be of use elsewhere. What it wouldn't do is put the Parades Commission on trial.

Ms Villiers must be clear and strong if she is to prevent this intractable problem from dominating politics. She needs to provide a way of dealing with it that is realistic, self-contained and focused on achieving agreement.

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