Belfast Telegraph

Time to change tune and get off this dead-end street

The solution to the Ardoyne stand-off is not to make it a shared space but a neutral one, says Brian Rowan

We all could have written that Friday the 13th blame-script long before a word was spoken. This was the morning after Ardoyne; the morning when the Orange Order was blamed by one side and dissident republicans by the other.

And, in the playing out of those familiar post-Twelfth tunes, there were those who called for the heads of the Parades Commission - as if those scalps would make things better.

It completely ignores the poison that is poured onto that Ardoyne stage every year in the build-up to parade and protest. It also ignores the paranoia of a place where two communities live within touching and shouting distance, as the north Belfast bricks and bottles fly.

Remember what was said in the lead-up to the latest parade? That 15 years of the peace process could be lost if the march was blocked.

And then, on the ground from someone on the republican side, a man I had never met before, the suggestion that loyalists were meeting; that "gear" (guns) was coming out and that Ardoyne would be attacked. It was nonsense, of course. As much nonsense as losing 15 years of the peace process.

But these predictions of doom and gloom, the rumour, the hearsay, the gossip, the interface tittle-tattle, are spoken as fact and it creates a mood.

The trouble I witnessed last Thursday night was not on the scale of previous years; not comparable to those July days when I watched soldiers being isolated to the point of their lives being at risk; when police officers, being attacked along their lines, dropped like flies and when firing plastic bullets seemed to happen without a second thought.

But too often we judge things as being better than the worst they could have been, rather than the best we should expect.

So, someone needs to change those Twelfth tunes in north Belfast, as other tunes have been changed in the developing peace.

Remember when the DUP talked about 'smashing' Sinn Fein, when republicans spoke against decommissioning in the words of 'not a bullet, not an ounce'?

Those things had to change, to make the once-unthinkable possible and to create the agreements between Paisley and Robinson and Adams and McGuinness.

Yet in Ardoyne on the Twelfth, the politicians of those parties stand on opposite sides of the road and behind the different police lines; not safe places in terms of the bricks and bottles that fly, but the safest places politically.

And there are those who are playing in this, pulling strings; the loyalists who want to make it some kind of last stand.

But not just the loyalists; the dissidents also, who see it as an opportunity to undermine new policing and politics; as a chance to brand Sinn Fein as 'Shame Fein', as one woman described the party to me. And all of this is being shovelled on top of the next generation, on young people who rioted and wrecked and burned as adults stood with their hands in their pockets, or their arms folded.

This was an ancient circus, an outdated play in which the performers acted and spoke in contradiction of a peace process.

So maybe the challenge is to try to turn this space into a neutral area. That would mean no parades, no protests and, therefore, no huge security operations.

For the Orange Order, the challenge would be to think differently than the right to walk and traditional routes, in the same way that the DUP and Sinn Fein had to change their words.

And it would not be a climb-down, but a victory for leadership - and something that would pull the rug out from under the feet of the dissidents.

The images from that parading and protesting stage in north Belfast are warts on the face of the peace process; pictures that will never be found in any of the brochures that do the telling and the selling of the Northern Ireland story.

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