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Walking the line: A profile of Anne Henderson

She holds down one of the most difficult jobs in Northern Ireland. As chair of the Parades Commission, Anne Henderson's biggest challenge is to persuade unionists, in particular, that she is not their enemy. She has her work cut out, writes Alex Kane.

A former member of the Parades Commission told me: "To be honest, given the level of abuse the commission has received from all the political parties, not to mention various organisations and residents' groups, you'd have to be slightly mad, as well as very thick-skinned, to want to be a member. But, hey, somebody has to be willing to put a hand on the poisoned chalice and take tough decisions for the good of Northern Ireland."

Since 1998 – when it took on its full powers – the commission has been charged with facilitating mediation between parties on disputes concerning proposed parades and taking appropriate steps to resolve them; as well as issuing determinations in respect of specific proposed parades.

Most of their time is taken up in engaging with local communities and parading organisations in an attempt to encourage local dialogue and "locally agreed solutions on contentious parades".

Inevitably, it isn't always possible to reach local agreement and, at that point, the commission has to make a determination. And, equally inevitably, one side or the other – and sometimes both sides – then accuses the commission of bias, stupidity, recklessness, arrogance, or rolling over to threats from "themmuns".

This week, the criticism took on a new dimension when, following a determination on a return parade past Ardoyne, the DUP and UUP withdrew from the latest talks process.

Shortly afterwards, the leaders of the DUP/UUP/PUP/TUV and West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group issued a joint statement: "This Parades Commission determination creates a serious situation for Northern Ireland. We know, having seen republican threats of violence being rewarded, the conclusion is swiftly drawn that violence pays.

"The message the Parades Commission has sent out is simple. It has shown that the commission members place no value on a relationship with unionism and have treated our advice with contempt. It has turned its face away from the evidence including from the PSNI. It is regrettable, but so be it.

"As a consequence we, as leaders of the unionist community, see no value in continuing contact with a Parades Commission that does not listen and is immune to reason."

The point the statement misses is that the commission exists only because the political parties have failed to deliver an alternative to it. They failed in 2010 (when a combination of the UUP and Orange Order scuppered a potential DUP/Sinn Fein deal).

They failed at the end of 2013, when there wasn't all-party agreement during the Haass process. They failed again on Thursday, when the latest process collapsed.

So it looks like the Parades Commission is going to run on and on, because there is no other entity empowered to make decisions.

On January 1, Anne Henderson replaced Peter Osborne as chair of the commission. Her biography on the Parades Commission website is short, to the point and fairly impersonal: "Anne is currently a non-executive director of the SS Nomadic Trading Company. She was vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive from 2004 to 2012, during which time she also spent a short period as acting chair.

"She is a chartered accountant and has worked for KPMG, Time Warner Inc and BDO Stoy Hayward. She has previously held positions on the board of the International Fund for Ireland, Enterprise Equity Northern Ireland Ltd and Enterprise Equity Ireland Ltd. She is a member of the audit committee of Queen's University".

She hasn't done any interviews since she was appointed and doesn't appear to have a presence on any social media outlet. The decision to keep a very low profile (something she has always done) is clearly a personal one, although many commission critics say that her below-the-radar profile only adds to the "air of secrecy" that surrounds the commission.

She was born in Ballymena, but brought up in mid-Ulster and her family – she has four siblings – is from a farming background.

She attended Moneymore Primary School, Magherafelt Secondary, Rainey Endowed and Queen's University. She trained as an accountant, but has never "worked in a pure accountancy-type role". She has been married to Charlie for 18 years and they have three children.

She says that her decision to apply for the Parades Commission was because, "I recognised it as a highly challenging role and I felt obliged to try and do something constructive in a highly contentious area. I would describe the job as demanding, challenging and stimulating rather than as a poisoned chalice."

When asked if the job of the commission would be easier if the relationship between the Executive parties was better than it seems to be, she replies: "Yes, I think that in any walk of life things are better when relationships are good."

Again, when asked to respond to those who say that the Parades Commission is one-sided and anti-unionist/Orange, she says: "The debates which the public hear on television and radio provide a flavour of what the commission hears. We have to make balanced judgments about difficult disputes around parades."

Oddly, given the ferociousness of the attitude of the Orange Order and unionist parties to the commission, she claims that the nature of the relationship of those parties and organisations to the commission is "professional, engaging and informative". That certainly isn't the impression given in the devastating critique of the joint statement.

Maybe she is just too polite and professional to say otherwise. Even her definition of contentious is almost clinically professional and impartial: "Contentious is where there is dispute and a lack of understanding." No hint whatsoever that contentious can also be a "political agenda" tactic deployed by one side or another for their own wider propaganda purposes.

While she says that she has always been interested in current affairs, there is a sense in her responses that, like her predecessor Peter Osborne, she isn't especially "political" in her attitudes, or outlook.

I don't mean party political, or predisposed to one side or another in Northern Ireland: I just mean that there is very little indication that political nuance is a essential part of her approach to decision-making in what is, after all, a very "political" job.

Maybe she thinks that it makes the job easier to do, or maybe the Secretary of State (who is responsible for the appointments) just prefers political-free members on the commission.

What is clear from talking to people who have had to deal with her in the past six months is that she has a "totally different personality" to that of Osborne: "More arm's length and a bit aloof – but then so is the whole new commission", is how one person (not form the unionist community) put it to me.

Another person, this time a unionist, said: "While I can't say I liked Osborne's decisions any more than hers, there was a greater sense that what we were saying was, at the very least, registering with him. This new lot are totally different."

A number of journalists have complained that neither Henderson nor her fellow commissioners have been good at briefing the media – let alone giving much insight into how they do their job.

To be honest, I'm not sure that that matters all that much. Given the nature of the job they have to do – particularly the determinations made when local resolutions can't be reached – the commissioners are never going to be loved. But they do need to be respected and engaged with if they are to do their job.

One thing is certain, though; the relationship between all shades of unionism/Orangeism and the Parades Commission is at a dangerously all-time low and light years away from her suggested description of it as "professional and engaging".

The relationship needs to change and she must lead and steer that change. Party political unionism doesn't trust her, or her team and if they continue their refusal to engage then the value and existence of the present Parades Commission must be called into question.

Anne Henderson is clearly a talented and professional woman. Her biggest challenge now is to convince unionism that neither she nor her commission is their enemy.

If she fails in that challenge, then the Secretary of State will sacrifice her if she has to.

A life so far ...

  • She was born in Ballymena and brought up in a farming background in mid-Ulster
  • She has been married to Charlie for 18 years and they have three children
  • She became chair of the Parades Commission on January 1, 2014
  • She trained as an accountant, but has never practiced as one
  • She's a former vice-chair of the Housing Executive
  • She loves the outdoors and rural life

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