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Let's stop raining on each other's parades

By Alex Kane

Published 17/06/2015

The Tour of the North moves down Donegall Street
The Tour of the North moves down Donegall Street
The grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson
A march for same-sex marriage equality
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly on the bonnet of a PSNI Land Rover during a previous parade dispute

We're running out of time to resolve the row over this Friday's Tour of the North, but there must come a point when Orange and republican march organisers give each other enough leeway to celebrate what matters to them.

Speaking after meeting the Secretary of State on Monday, the grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Edward Stevenson said: "We are fed up with false promises, doublespeak and constructive ambiguity. The time for the Government to act to lance the boil of discrimination that the parading legislation has created is long overdue. There can be no true stability and enhanced relationships while the traditions of one community are so shabbily dealt with at the behest of the other."

One presumes that the meeting didn't go well.

His comments follow a warning from Orangemen on Saturday - marking the 700th day of the protest at Twaddell Avenue - to the Chief Constable that they will not do "the police's job for them this marching season".

The Order added: "The community took great risks and showed fine leadership in the face of having our basic civil and religious freedom denied due to the threat of violence from republicans, to which the Government, along with the Parades Commission, capitulated as they have a habit of doing. It is an indictment of this system that law-abiding people are being punished and mistreated on the basis of violence, intimidation and, quite frankly, blatantly bogus grievances."

The tone and timing of these comments suggest that the situation is just as bad today as it was 700 days ago, or even 6,192 days ago when the standoff at Drumcree began. It doesn't seem to matter, either, that thousands of other Orange Order/loyal order parades pass off peacefully and that tens of thousands of participants and spectators come and go without a brick being thrown or a riot ensuing.

And each of those parades will also have been subject to the nod of approval from the same Parades Commission that Orange and unionist leaders have dismissed as "puppets of republicanism".

With so many other successful parades across the province, wouldn't it make sense for the Orange Order to cut its losses and negative coverage in places like north Belfast and Drumcree and focus on the positive events?

If they can live with the determinations of the Parades Commission in so many other places, then why not just take the "bad ones" on the chin and abide by the restrictions?

Surely that would win them support and make it easier for them to negotiate an alternative to the commission which, after all, only exists because the Orange Order scuppered an alternative to it a few years ago.

But it isn't that simple. The Orange Order and the unionist parties believe that both Sinn Fein and broader elements of republicanism have gone out of their way to make certain parades in certain areas "contentious".

In other words, the protests and complaints to the Parades Commission are, so they think, part of a much wider campaign to curb their freedoms.

So, even if they chose to avoid those areas where "they are not welcome by local residents", they believe that republicans would bank it as a victory and then move on to other areas and other parades. And that's why they are, quite literally as it happens, so reluctant to budge.

They don't believe that it would be regarded as a "compromise" anyway: they believe that it would be interpreted by their opponents as a defeat and would lead to new protests and new roads where "Orange feet" would be unwelcome.

They're probably right to think that. Most of the evidence suggests that Sinn Fein - which still believes that carefully chosen battles reap electoral and propaganda dividends for it - will continue with Gerry Adams's doctrine of picking out areas where Orange marches "are regarded as provocative, triumphalist and offensive".

Parades are about turf war. Both sides acknowledge that fact. The Orange Order has said on many occasions that it doesn't want to march through "nationalist areas where we would not be welcome", although it also argues that main public roads - parts of which may pass the front of nationalist or mixed, areas - should not be construed as passing through a nationalist area.

Similarly, Sinn Fein likes the idea of "ourselves alone" areas; areas where it can make a successful case for the banning or restricting of Orange movement. And, of course, the Orange Order and unionist parties, while acknowledging that they know where they are not welcome, do not want Sinn Fein, the Parades Commission or self-styled 'residents' groups' adding to that list of places.

Given what is at stake - it is, after all, a battle between unionism and republicanism - the parading issue is going to be enormously difficult to resolve. But given the costs involved, the months of raised tensions and instability, the bad publicity nationally and internationally and the knock-on damage to the Assembly and Executive, it is an issue that must be resolved.

We cannot continue with an ongoing annual dispute that magnifies interface areas, scares people on both sides, makes it impossible to knock down peace walls and squanders millions in PSNI resources.

And nor can we continue with the annual rituals of squaring up, standing off and increasingly bad-tempered exchanges between all of the parties, groups, organisations and commissions involved.

There has to come a time when the people behind Orange and republican parades are mature enough to give each other enough leeway to celebrate - albeit briefly and with respect to others - what matters to them.

For goodness' sake, if Gay Pride and same-sex marriage rallies can pass off without incident in Northern Ireland (and who could have imagined that 20 years ago), then surely we can turn a blind eye and deaf ear to other things?

As ever in Northern Ireland, we've left it too late to try and resolve this year's Tour of the North and Twelfth. But maybe, just maybe, the paraders and protesters could keep calm over the next few weeks, allow things to pass off peacefully and then return in early September to some sort of convention, or civic forum, where they could make a serious attempt to understand each other's position and see if a genuine compromise is possible.

Northern Ireland is not the sole property of one side or other. And nor should certain areas be seen as the sole property of one side or other.

Our history is a shared and collective history. Our culture is a shared and collective culture. Whether we like it or not, we are going to have to share Northern Ireland for a long time to come.

So let's stop being afraid of each other. Let's stop placing restrictions on each other. Let's begin to see that we actually are much bigger and much nicer than the sum of our parts.

Or, to put it another way, let's get to the point where we don't feel the need to rain on each other's parades.

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