We're marching towards another summer of parades chaos: yet another July of foreboding is staring Northern Ireland in the face
Published 16/06/2014 | 09:26
Yet another July of foreboding is staring Northern Ireland in the face. The clouds are darkening over north Belfast, with Camp Twaddell on one side of a deepening divide and embittered Ardoyne residents on the other.
The finger of blame can be pointed everywhere, but hope of compromise is not apparent anywhere.
The multi-million pounds bill for policing racks up by the day as the climax of the marching season approaches and tensions mount towards the Twelfth.
The main Stormont political parties commit themselves to one last-minute last-ditch effort to solve the insoluble in a new, brief round of inter-party talks, but even before they start, no less than the First Minister expresses little hope of agreement.
All in all, everyone is staggering shambolically into yet another summer crisis and the prospect of the national and international newscasts featuring the clichéd images of sectarian disorder in Northern Ireland as if it were forever thus.
One of my earliest personal recollections of covering the Troubles as a young journalist was of cowering in a telephone kiosk, dictating a report while surrounded by sectarian street disorder outside on Belfast's Crumlin Road.
It seems nothing much has changed in more than four decades, other than the fact that news travels more instantaneously nowadays from one corner of the earth to another.
So, how have we reached a point where, in spite of all the months and months of debating the parades issues since the last Twelfth, a resolution looks as far away as ever?
Let's go back to 2013 and what the-then Parades Commission had to say to Ligoniel True Blues LOL 1932 and two other lodges who wished "to join the main Twelfth parade, and then attend religious service in the Field then return home to Ligoniel Orange Hall".
The commission ruled, as it seems likely to do again this year, that the lodges would be restricted from marching along the 300 yards of roadway now infamously known as the Ardoyne interface.
Crucially, the commission said, in paragraph 11 of the ruling, that "it would facilitate, or support others to facilitate, a sincere and concerted mediation effort between Cara [the Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents Group] and the Orange Order to reach an agreement on parades notified for this location, both morning and evening. This should start in September 2013...
"In the event of the loyal orders respecting this determination... we expect that any future commission will look favourably upon a notification of a similar evening parade on July 12, 2014."
Nothing could have been clearer, but those on the Orange side had other ideas, as well. They established Camp Twaddell, right across the interface from Ardoyne, and have since had more than 300 weekday and Saturday evening parades.
The PSNI, which needs to be on hand nightly with a considerable presence at an enormous cost to the public purse, has recorded 76 breaches of commission rulings and made 20 arrests.
On the Ardoyne residents' side, "meaningful and sustained dialogue" is made all the more difficult because the community is split. A substantive section of hardliners refuse to accept the Parade Commission's determination that the Orange lodges can march in the morning – never mind return on the evening of the Twelfth.
The residents who really matter – those who actually have their homes fronting the disputed section of the Ardoyne interface – are also divided.
At best, according to a straw poll conducted by the BBC's Spotlight programme, a majority favour talks with the Orange Order and possibly an agreement limited to a morning parade only.
Is there a solution? On the evidence of the past 12 months and the current atmosphere at the interface, the answer is no.
The tactics of the Belfast Orange Order remain open to question in somehow believing that organising nightly marches and establishing a permanent flag-bedecked protest site at such a contentious hotspot is conducive to finding a settlement.
The splits in the Ardoyne residents' groups have virtually ensured that a compromise is impossible.
Unless the politicians surprise us all, as they have not done to date, with an agreement on parades in the new inter-party talks, it will be down to the police to keep the lid as best they can on north Belfast during another volatile, dangerous July, while the rest of Northern Ireland counts the cost and eventually picks up the bill.
Time is running out fast.