Belfast Telegraph

Orangemen and unionists need a shared future too

There can be no progress unless we give those with whom we disagree an equal place in society, says Gavin Robinson

So, where do we go from here? Irrespective of whether your view has been strongly one-sided, or collectively jaundiced, following the last number of days, what now?

Not as an Orangeman, as a unionist, nor as a public representative, but as someone who loves Northern Ireland and wants to see it prosper I ask seriously: where do we go from here?

When I served as Lord Mayor of Belfast, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to build relations, connecting with people across the city and genuinely, sincerely getting to a place were 'mutual respect' and 'tolerance' were simply the initial foundation of a path toward true support and encouragement for difference.

Over the last number of days, there has been significant damage to such an aspiration. I fear that, in seeking a solution, it will be necessary to first establish some uncomfortable truths.

When Peter Osborne ceremonially washed his hands and those of the Parades Commission of any culpability, he failed to accept that not only were there alternative outcomes available, there was no rational, legal, or practical impediment to permitting a return parade along the Crumlin Road last Friday.

It'll come as no surprise to learn that I do not believe that the Parades Commission is infallible. That's true of most public bodies, but nor are they transparent, openly accountable, or answerable to democratic scrutiny in Northern Ireland.

Should you choose to establish how they make their decisions, or what guidelines they follow, you'll not find any criteria on their website.

They operate behind closed doors. They not only secretly facilitate, they secretly arbitrate and then pass a public pronouncement.

You'll not know what's said against you and neither will you be offered an opportunity to respond.

Take this recent example. While they encourage dialogue among everyone else, they refused to engage with elected representatives in west Tyrone, having banned a parade involving Castlederg Young Loyalists.

Such intransigence was struck down in the High Court last week for procedural impropriety, but how did the Parades Commission respond?

A spokeswomen said: "The commission had heard the decision of the judge and cannot agree with his views of this very minor technical matter."

Are the Parades Commission honestly above such reproach that they even challenge the independent determination of our judiciary?

The truth is that the Parades Commission has no credibility among those most directly affected. Neither the Orange Order, opposing residents' organisations, nor the majority of political parties support the Parades Commission.

Indeed, members of all those mentioned above supported a fresh template that would see an end to the Parades Commission in 2010.

It was rejected by some within the Orange Order and they need to reflect upon that decision.

The Haass talks – due this autumn – provide an important opportunity to bring some hope to those feeling most dejected.

They offer a chance for political parties, interested parties and those uninterested, but similarly affected within our society, to refocus our determination to see a better, brighter future.

I make no apology for stating that I get disheartened when the notion of a shared future is disdainfully adultered for a political purpose.

Some talk gallantly of a shared future, but would prefer that future without colour and without identity.

They favour some sort of innocuous, vacuous shared space, where people are compelled to set aside who they are and what their political, cultural, or ecumenical aspirations may be. I fear that can only lead to a future filled with resentment and frustration.

There are others who similarly talk in glowing terms about engagement and co-operation, but when you boil it down, they are only prepared to offer me and those like me a future – provided I share their view. That is the antithesis of where we need to go.

Any shared future has to include Orangemen and cultural unionists. It's must also include those who choose similar, but culturally different, organisations, or, indeed, those who choose not to join such an organisation at all.

We can dare to be different, but dare we give those with whom we disagree an equal place in society? Even though I took part in a legal, enjoyable parade on July 12, that was attacked in east Belfast by those who disagree, I believe we must.

Unless and until we understand that difference isn't detrimental; when we understand and appreciate such difference, we will not grow together, nor show forever that the past is the past.

When the temperature of the last few days inevitably dies down, when those with cool heads and calm hearts take control of our streets, riven with communal tension and abhorrent violence, I believe there is a great deal of work required to rewrite the wrongs of the last few weeks.

I'm up for it. I trust others will be as well.

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