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Taking responsibility key to tackling parades deadlock

By Liam Clarke

Published 06/08/2015

I don't compare notes with Nelson McCausland before we write our columns - and it shows. Nevertheless, this week I can agree with some of the comments he made on the radio backing the Parades Commission determination on Sunday's anti-internment demonstration in Belfast city centre.

The commission is dead right to tell the demonstrators to clear the city centre by 1.30pm. Given the disruption over the past two years, the interests of city centre traders can't be ignored. Neither can the right of the public to shop and enjoy the city centre on one of the few days they have off. It is a family afternoon.

It is unreasonable for the Anti-Internment League to say it won't leave Ardoyne till 2.30pm and then issue belligerent statements challenging the "State militia of the PSNI and British Army" to "try to stop us". It sounds like something from the early 1970s, when there really was internment.

It is a matter for the so-called "State militias" to decide whether to take up this gauntlet or play it canny. The police haven't got the manpower they once did. The Army isn't deployed here anymore, and it would be a major political setback to change that.

Anyway, it is a matter for decision on the ground whether you want to bring water cannon, plastic bullets or snatch squads into the city centre.

Halting the parade in Ardoyne could create a difficult stand-off and could last days, or longer, if nationalists decided to emulate the loyalist Twaddell protest.

I'm glad I don't have to make that decision, which involves practical damage limitation as well as principle. What should definitely happen is that the parade should be filmed, observed by police witnesses and, if it proves too difficult to intervene, then there should be prosecutions later for breaches.

That is what should happen to loyalist counter-demonstrators, too. They caused the most serious trouble along this route in 2013 when there were days of rioting. Last year's parade, though rowdy at times, didn't produce so much trouble.

It should also happen at Orange parades. Both sides of the political divide are too fond of putting the Parades Commission and the police in the dock when there is a parading dispute.

These two bodies pick up the mess when the politicians and communities fail to agree. The history is tedious, but Sinn Fein and the DUP both agreed a replacement for the Parades Commission a few years ago and the Orange Order rejected it at the last moment.

Since then there has been no agreement, at least in north Belfast, and it falls to the commission to make a determination.

In most cases, if the determinations are obeyed by all sides, the parade passes peacefully. If it doesn't, the ball is passed to the police.

The only way we can move on is if the commission and the PSNI get full community support to handle the problems which our parading culture imposes. Of course, that is all subject to supervision by the courts to ensure rules aren't breached.

Longer-term the best way forward would be agreement either to support the commission or to find an alternative.

The chances of an alternative seem slim. Last year the Belfast Telegraph suggested a commission to look at the issue in the round. This was taken up, with some variations, by the Government, unionists and the loyal orders.

Nationalists rejected it as an attack on the Parades Commission, the Northern Ireland Office pulled back and the idea died.

It could still be revived if people want it. Another option is to place legal obligations on people applying for parades to show that they are capable of meeting any damage caused if their supporters breach the determination. This could be by means of bonds or insurance policies, as happens in Scotland for most parades.

What we can't have is the annual game of parading whataboutery, where politicians lambast the legal authorities for not doing what they want.

We also can't afford a situation where parade organisers promise no problems, as happened last week on the Ormeau Road, and then say they had no control when there are complaints. Taking responsibility is the key to resolving this.

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