Ardoyne parade: Just half-a-mile long but a blot on all our futures
As tensions rise over Ardoyne parade, small stretch of road still threatens our fractured peace
It is hard to believe that a dispute over a group of men walking half-a-mile threatens to bring Northern Ireland to a halt and plunge political talks into chaos.
The policing bill will run into millions and, without proper political leadership, it could cost lives as well as money.
This is a spectacular failure for political leadership and for our devolution settlement.
The dispute is very narrowly focused but it doesn't take much to shake our wobbly political system to the core.
The political imperative should be to reduce and contain the impact until a solution can be found for next year – the British and Irish Governments need to show a united response but the British Government must take the lead.
A taskforce, perhaps headed by a judge, is one option that should be considered.
The Parades Commission has prohibited three north Belfast Orange lodges from processing between the junction of Woodvale Parade and Woodvale Road and the junction of Hesketh Road and Crumlin Road as they return from the 12th of July celebrations.
That route would bring them along the Crumlin Road past the Ardoyne shops.
In other words, scarcely half-a-mile, which they could walk in little more than five minutes.
To add to the sense of unreality, the lodges are being allowed to walk along the same stretch of road that morning on their way to the field.
There may be attempts to block their progress by Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC), who see the halting of the evening march as "evidence of the success of our radical tactics". The unionist parties have supercharged the dispute and added to the sense of crisis by cutting off contact with the Parades Commission, cancelling a meeting with the Irish Government and pulling out of talks intended to find an overall way forward on flags, parading and the past.
They say they want to channel loyalist "anger and outrage" in a non-violent, political direction. Yet their language seems calculated to alarm. "We know, having seen republican threats of violence being rewarded, the conclusion is swiftly drawn that violence pays.
"We have, for some time, been aware that such an absurd parades determination would bring with it a very real risk of widespread violence and disorder," the unionist parties said.
This strange statement, arguing that violence pays but calling for peace, is signed not just by small opposition parties like the PUP, the UPRG and the TUV, but by the UUP and DUP.
In most societies such governing parties who feared widespread disorder would head any statement with a call to respect the legal determinations of bodies like the Parades Commission and obey the police.
Instead, the unionist parties are planning a "graduated response" aimed at defeating the ruling, which they are keeping secret for maximum effect.
This is not the response of a governing party, and it is being co-ordinated with the Orange Order.
The Order enjoys more political influence than at any time since the heyday of the old, pre-Troubles Stormont when Northern Ireland was referred to by some nationalists as "the Orange state". A recent survey of DUP membership, carried out with the party's co-operation, showed that 75% of its MPs, more than 50% of its MLAs and councillors and over a third of its members are Orangemen.
These Orangemen are generally the most active and dedicated members of the party. The Orange Order is an organisation whose key slogans are "not an inch" and "no surrender".
Compromise is not something that comes naturally.
Its default position in the face of challenge is to dig its heels in.
In the past, as at the Drumcree dispute in Portadown, the Order has remained unbending until it was eventually defeated.
Many marches have disappeared after a rearguard action when negotiation would have served better. Yet the Order also stands for civil and religious liberty, and there is something in it that can be appealed to.
In north Belfast it has engaged in dialogue with nationalists. One effort, under Lord Alderdice, almost succeeded, and there have been sporadic talks over the past year.
It was not sustained or consistent dialogue, but it happened.
Success is possible. Ninety-five per cent of parades are already uncontested.
In Londonderry the Apprentice Boys, another loyal order whose parades along the city walls were bitterly contested for many years, has settled its differences with its critics.
Now it parades during an annual civic festival in the predominantly nationalist city, which was a seedbed of the Troubles. Mutual respect has largely replaced enmity.
Of course, the Apprentice Boys had to accept that they needed agreement to march and they needed nationalist partners, like the business community, who were prepared to accommodate them for the good of all.
That changed the zero-sum, winner-take-all game played out in Derry for centuries into a win-win solution.
Those ingredients of leadership and generosity are hard to find in north Belfast just now.
The situation has become so inflamed and entrenched that outside help is needed.
As the Parades Commission says, the Order needs space and help to “examine in depth an approach which does not compromise its longstanding values, but which identifies a less strict adherence to tradition in this particularly difficult parading area of the Crumlin Road”.
They need to think why - and even whether - a six-to-nine minute walk along a particular stretch of road is really worth the trouble of recent years.
Last year alone 39 police officers were injured and £10m has been spent policing the protests. Nationalist residents, who are now represented by at least two largely self-appointed groups, need to consider whether there are conditions which would enable them to tolerate a march in the way that Derry has done.
The Parades Commission cannot act as facilitators for dialogue on something they have to adjudicate on.
The politicians have been unable to show a common cross-community approach and also lack the authority to broker a deal.
We need an outsider to lead this process, and an outside body needs to be its paymaster.
It could be the British government or a charitable trust or a mixture of both.
A judge or senior legal figure might be the right person to lead such a process to deal with Ardoyne and stop the bitterness of the dispute poisoning our whole society. Scotland, which has a similar parading culture to our own - but less disputes - might be the place to look for a figurehead.
Academics like Professor Jon Tonge of Liverpool University, who surveyed both the DUP and the Orange Order and is now conducting a study on republican dissidents, might have the independence and expertise to form part of the team.
There is also a case for systematic sampling of opinion to test options and ideas.
Focus groups and confidential polling might be a suitable way to judge feeling, and scope for manoeuvre, both in the loyalist and republican community.
The details could be worked out. What is for sure is that our political system lacks the ability to solve this problem.
Instead of being able to help, our major parties need outside help themselves.