Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

We must travel a long and winding road on marches

A process that saw Apprentice Boys co-operate with Bogside residents could form the template for resolving the parades crisis, says Garvan O'Doherty

The Apprentice Boys of Derry
The Apprentice Boys of Derry

Belfast's retail trade and tourism suffered badly from street protests. There are fears the coming marching season could inflict further damage. There is, though, an example that Belfast can learn from.

In the past, parades caused Londonderry to be a closed city several times a year, including Saturdays that should have been among the best trading days.

The result was one that no one wanted. Businesses often closed for the day. Residents were unable to access their own city centre. The Apprentice Boys of Derry paraded through empty streets.

Three groups of people were unhappy and all three wanted a solution. Together with another businessman, Brendan Duddy, I was asked by both the Apprentice Boys and the Bogside Residents Association to mediate and create that solution, operating through Derry's City Centre Initiative.

The timing was right – this was the mid-1990s, when we had Drumcree and fears that parades could lead to violence and repercussions that we all wanted to avoid.

A process was created that, firstly, set about holding talks with the key parties. This formed an agenda for future meetings, which eventually allowed the Apprentice Boys and the Bogside Residents Association to meet face-to-face.

Throughout this process, we were supported by politicians who agreed to let the process of talks proceed without interference.

We moved gradually. The process took a number of years, leading to an opening-up of the city centre, sympathetic policing and mutual toleration by parades and residents.

Today, Derry city centre remains open for business during parades – benefiting marchers, traders and residents. Parades are seen, accepted and understood by many more people.

The process still requires intervention and support, with all parties meeting as required to keep things on track. We do not have agreement on all contentious issues – feeder parades remain disputed. Progress has neither been quick, nor decisive. However, there is clear benefit to all.

Belfast, hopefully, has the same opportunities as Derry to reach agreement on contentious parades. But a solution will not be achieved by conversations over a few weeks.

Discussions should focus, first, on confidence-building, recognising the issues of contention and looking beyond the present. Patience, hard work and a focus on what is the real prize are fundamental. The real prize, in my view, is quality of life and long-term contentment.

Parading is enormously symbolic as a symptom of underlying conflicts and discontent. Talks must be about more than the parades.

Short-term conflicts, or, indeed, short-term solutions, will always hinder progress on the real battle: wider social and economic problems and their causes.

Our economic crisis is badly affecting both communities, with high unemployment, low pay and worsening deprivation – contrary to the peace dividend promised when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Dealing with the economic problems of unemployment and poverty are actually more important in achieving real peace than the issue of who marches where and when.

The Good Friday Agreement set out the basis for a working Assembly and created an uneasy peace. Perhaps its major failing was that it caused us to expect too much too soon of our elected representatives.

It is only a first step in the process. Now politicians must focus on the longer-term and the steps needed to improve the well-being of our whole society. It is obvious we have fallen far short of our aims under the agreement. However, we all have responsibilities and roles to play to deliver benefits to all society.

Until we formulate solutions on the delivery of this broader agenda, backed by a 'Good Friday Agreement II', focused on that longer-term and our underlying economic problems, a parading solution will be delayed.

This process should help our communities to see their similarities, instead of focusing on their differences. Only then can the uneasy peace be transformed into a lasting and meaningful peace.

This does mean, however, that we all must question what it is that we truly want.

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