Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

This dangerous madness can march on no longer

Whether the loyal orders like it or not, the Parades Commission is the only show in town unless an agreed replacement is found, says Brian Rowan

Those people who played those parading games in Belfast a few days ago need to have a think about what they are doing. Think above the drum-beats and band noise that were part of that defiant march past St Patrick's church last Saturday. And think before it is too late.

There are many questions, not just about what happened, but why it happened; about who pulled the strings, made the decisions, choreographed that marching and music performance.

Were loyalists at play in the background? Was there a strategy other than another of those parading hissy-fits and a sleepwalk towards madness?

Whatever it was, it is time for all involved to wake up. Have they forgotten the events of the 1990s and all that happened around Drumcree; forgotten about loyalists spitting on police officers, shooting at them and throwing bombs? Have they forgotten the killing of Michael McGoldrick?

Do they care about how much those security operations cost, whether in Drumcree a decade ago, around the Whiterock Parade in 2005 and every year in Ardoyne?

And do they think about how this plays into the hands of dissidents; how it undermines new policing and new politics, and leaves Sinn Fein open to the charge from its republican critics that nothing has changed?

Will there be a penalty for what happened last Saturday beyond some token punishment for some bit-player?

How sharp will the focus be on those who conducted and directed the bands and this particular performance; on those who so brazenly decided to breach the restrictions that had been imposed?

Things are meant to have changed as part of the political agreements of 1998 and since.

It is no longer about marching when you want, where you want and how you want, but marching within the rules.

This place has moved beyond traditional routes and the right to walk anywhere and everywhere. And that message needs to go out; to Orangeism, unionism and loyalism; along with another message. That is that the Parades Commission will not be disbanded because of their demands and will stay unless a better mechanism can be found.

Do we really want politicians - of any description - within miles of the decision-making process?

The police need to find out what happened last Saturday and who made it happen and present that information to the commission.

And would it be unreasonable to expect that all who breached the rules should be barred from walking that route again until there are absolute guarantees?

Guarantees that they will behave as stipulated within the determination of the commission and showing respect for others? The police - the then-RUC - buckled under pressure and under threat at Drumcree and elsewhere in 1996 and 1997 before they stood their ground. The new police service - the PSNI - needs to stand its ground, too.

A few weeks ago, on the Twelfth, it made sure a small number of Orangemen were able to make the return walk at Ardoyne in north Belfast.

But there are those who believe that, last Saturday, the police should have - could have - done more.

Of course, there will be those who will argue that could only have been achieved at a cost; that there would have been a huge risk of serious violence. But there is another side to that coin.

What if, in these parading plays, the dissidents win the argument, as they are winning in Ardoyne; able to point at unwanted and unwelcome marches and at policing in combative mode as evidence, not of a new beginning, but of old ways?

And what if all of this puts a strain on the political arrangements at Stormont? What then the cost?

And what if, as in the 1990s, someone else loses their life? This issue needs leaders - not lemmings.

It doesn't have to be another march to some perilous edge. It is time to pause and think.

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