Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Parades walking parties towards a total dead end

It is ironic that the marching issue - which Sinn Fein highlighted in the 1990s - has turned into a deal-breaking Exocet, writes Alan Murray

Today's deadline for agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein on the devolution of policing and justice and parading issues is almost certain to come and go without a resolution to the impasse that is paralysing the Executive.

Hyped media optimism, Government spin and all the bustle generated by two Prime Ministers and their respective entourages failed to deliver the type of 11th-hour conclusion that always managed to emerge in the Blair/Ahern era.

Maybe their successors, messrs Brown and Cowen, just don't have that haul-it-over-the-line knack - or maybe the ultimate political buffers have been reached in the poisonous relationship at the heart of the Executive in the office of OFMDFM.

Sinn Fein doesn't have confirmed 'product' on the policing and justice devolution date demand and a weakened DUP leader won't get the 'product' he needs on the overall parading issue.

It was always going to be quick and easy to fulfil Sinn Fein's core demand - on paper, anyway - by pencilling in a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers.

That could be easily sold to their supporters - albeit with the health warning that the DUP had to agree.

But to task the DUP with going forth to sell a 'process' rather than an assured solution to their parading problem was always going to be more than a big ask.

It's been estimated that around 38 to 40 of the DUP/Ulster Unionist Assemblymen are affiliated in some way to one of the so-called Loyal Orders, such as the Orange Order, the Royal Black Preceptory or the Apprentice Boys of Derry.

It was even mentioned in DUP circles before this week of crunch talks that if acceptable proposals on the resolution of disputed parades were proffered at Hillsborough, then the Orange Order district lodges sponsoring those parades should be consulted and their approval sought before assent was indicated by the party's negotiators.

We may yet learn how far that idea will be pursued. But suffice to say that without an indication of some assent from the loyal order fraternity to proposals on parades' resolution, the DUP will be loathe to partake of any deal - elections or no elections pending.

It is an unfortunate irony for Sinn Fein that the matter they sought to highlight for political gain in the 1990s - by orchestrating opposition to parades in Portadown, Belfast and beyond - has been propelled back towards them now as a deal-breaking Exocet.

They angrily describe the exploitation of the issue by the DUP as an "Orange Order veto", or a "loyalist precondition", which they could not possibly concede. And they're probably right that it would cause them electoral damage or even just marginal loss in grassroots' support.

Similarly, for the DUP not to emerge from negotiations with some substantial fig leaf on parades to cover them would have caused more than the already expected haemorrhaging at the forthcoming polls.

Unlike Sinn Fein, the DUP will be fighting for its very position at the next Assembly and Westminster elections, with both the Tory-backed Ulster Unionists and Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice seeking to leave just a carcass of a once-largest party on the steps of Stormont.

In terms of Orange Order membership, the UUP probably numbers more sash-wearers than the DUP, but as the party of the First Minister - and largest unionist party - Peter Robinson would ignore the parades issue at his peril.

Even if Lord Ashdown's Strategic Review report hadn't mooted the scrapping of the Parades Commission and a new secretariat in OFMDFM to adjudicate on marches deemed contentious, the DUP was unlikely to leave the matter to fester and further blight the summer months.

It is a matter that will be revisited and there is always the prospect in the not-too-distant future that a new Conservative Government might produce a set of proposals on the devolution of policing and justice, coupled with parade resolution ideas, more likely to find favour with a DUP outlook.

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