Politicians must lead, not follow
It is difficult to fathom the tactics of First Minister Peter Robinson as the row continues over the Parades Commission's decision to ban the return Orange march past Ardoyne shops tomorrow. Just hours after signing a statement with other party leaders saying that the commission is the lawful authority in such issues and its decisions must be observed, Mr Robinson then forced a recall of the Assembly next week and his party described the decision as lawful but illogical.
While DUP members were keen to say that violence must be avoided in any protests at the decision, the party's actions and words can only ratchet up the tension in an already volatile situation. North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds got himself expelled from the Commons for intemperate and unparliamentarily language aimed at the Secretary of State. The Parades Commission, inevitably, came in for a volley of verbal abuse.
At a time when common sense and calm heads are needed, some of the utterances were ill-advised, to say the least. The problem with verbal missiles is that, unlike traditional bricks and stones, they invariably find their target. Even opposing sides, like the republican dissidents and the Orange Order supporters, can find justification for their actions in the comments of politicians. Launching a broadside against a lawful body making a lawful determination can never be helpful and the consequences of such words are often found in violent actions on the streets.
There is no logic in attacking the Parades Commission. That is evident to even the blindest person. It has an impossible job. How can it simultaneously appease a body which wants to march along traditional routes whatever the demographics of the area and residents groups which will go out of their way to be offended. The position of both sides are so polar they are impossible to bridge, unless the groups can sort out the problems themselves through dialogue.
Common sense – unfortunately as rare in Northern Ireland at this time of the year as frostbite in the tropics – would find no problem with a parade taking 20 minutes to pass a row of shops on a main road in Belfast. Elsewhere in the UK it would not even be a matter for debate. Here it creates a tinderbox.
No-one has come up with an alternative to the Parades Commission, although a working party is to examine ways of dealing with parading issues. Politicians seem afraid of taking responsibility for parades, perhaps because they would have to show leadership and not just pander to their own party faithful. While they are at liberty to disagree with decisions made by the commission they should choose their words very carefully. There is a world of difference between pointing out that there is a problem and actually adding to that problem. It is a balance that many seem unable to find and that is regrettable.