Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Viewpoint: Start talking before the walking

Given the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, it is now an appropriate time to tackle what has been an annual running sore, the issue of parades.

The widespread violence which engulfed the province at the height of the Drumcree stand-off and the sporadic outbreaks of trouble at other contentious demonstrations showed how community divisions can spiral out of control.

The body set up to find a way forward on the issue is set to issue an interim report this week and the leaked details show the depth of thought which has gone into finding new solutions.

The Strategic Review Parades Body is attempting to set the issue in the new context created by the restoration of devolved government and also linking it to the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont.

One of the main recommendations is to replace the Parades Commission and splitting the roles of mediation and adjudication.

A new parades secretariat would be established at the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister to decide on contentious marches.

It would issue legally binding decisions. Other recommendations include monitors to observe behaviour at parades; new arrangements for notifying district councils of parade plans and the establishment of mediation processes.

The Strategic Review Parades Body brought together for the first time representatives of the loyal order and nationalist residents groups and the fact that they have signed up to the new arrangements gives hope that a way forward is possible.

There is an air of optimism in Northern Ireland following the restoration of devolved government and the sight of the DUP and Sinn Fein working together in government demonstrates that previously unthinkable agreements are possible.

While the new recommendations set a new legislative framework for adjudicating and policing parades, the key to resolving the issue is agreement between marchers and residents on the ground. It should be remembered that the vast majority of parades over the marching season pass off without any trouble. It is only in areas like Belfast's Lower Ormeau, Drumcree or Dunloy that bitter opposition between the marchers and residents is evident.

In the past both sides have become entrenched in their positions and have left the Parades Commission to make the decisions they were unwilling to take themselves.

Under the new arrangements the emphasis will be on local negotiations. That will be the litmus test of how much goodwill exists to find a fair solution to local contention.

The new arrangements will not come into effect before this year's marching season.

However, the loyal orders and residents groups can make a positive start by engaging at local level. Their attitudes will show whether Northern Ireland is really on a new road to a better future.

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