David Ford tells loyalists to give up Twaddell protest camp before the Twelfth parades
Justice Minister says it's "time to recognise the reality of the law" as marching season looms again
Loyalists manning a protest camp at a volatile north Belfast interface have been urged by Stormont's Justice minister to give it up ahead of the height of the marching season.
David Ford also stressed the importance of the region's five main political parties reaching agreement on long standing disputes over parades prior to traditional Twelfth of July commemorations next month.
A parading wrangle at the Woodvale/Ardoyne interface, which prompted the protest camp to be set up last summer, is one of the issues set to feature high up the agenda during a fresh political talks initiative at the end of this month.
Representatives of the five Executive parties will also be striving for consensus on dealing with issues around flags and the toxic legacy of the past in two separate three-day sessions of negotiations.
Asked during Assembly question time about apparent weakness in current Westminster legislation around parades, Mr Ford said: "The best solution to dealing with the parading problems in legislation is when we get agreement amongst the five parties of the Executive and we ensure we can carry legislation forward in this assembly and not rely on the Secretary of State (Theresa Villiers) doing it at Westminster.
"I trust what we will see over the next few weeks (during the new talks) will ensure that we don't have to make that request of the secretary of state."
Violence flared in the unionist Woodvale area last summer when Orangemen were banned by the Parades Commission adjudication body from parading up a section of the nearby Crumlin Road on their way home from Twelfth of July events elsewhere in the city.
The stretch of road passes the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood and its residents are vehemently opposed to Orange marches close to their homes.
Loyalist rioting on the Twelfth was repeated on a number of subsequent days.
Demonstrators have maintained a continuous presence at the protest camp on Twaddell Avenue ever since.
Police have maintained a fluctuating presence in the area to ensure no more trouble erupts - an operation that has cost the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in excess of £9 million.
Mr Ford told the Assembly it was time for the camp to go.
"The reality is that money (to police the camp) which is now lost, which could have been used for policing priorities in other areas, could have been used in a variety of projects which I suspect every MLA could identify in their constituency in terms of the ongoing work of community policing and which sadly has been expended for no good purpose whatsoever.
"It really is time that those who are involved in that particular camp recognise the reality of the law, recognise where the Parades Commission's lawful determinations have led them, accepted that point and gave up their protest."
Earlier the DUP's Brenda Hale had asked the minister what discussions he would have with new PSNI chief constable George Hamilton about ensuring a peaceful marching season.
Mr Ford said: "In terms of a peaceful parading season I would encourage all to play their part in finding a solution to bring about a peaceful conclusion to this issue.
"The reality is that neither the police nor I can solve the issues around parading - resolution can only come through local dialogue in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect."
Later the minister touched on issues around the past when the SDLP's Dolores Kelly asked him to respond to criticism from Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey over delays in providing police documents for inquests into historic Troubles killings.
Mr Ford said the issue was "complex and difficult" and noted that there were more than 45 outstanding legacy inquest cases relating to 75 "sensitive and contentious" deaths.
"That is very clearly a very significant backlog which has huge resource implications," he said.
The minister added: "Until we can find some way of resolving the difficult issues of the past and not relying on simply coroners' inquests and other work by the (police) ombudsman and HET (the police's Historic Enquiries Team) we will continue as a society to be in difficulty.
"That is why we have such a need to ensure the five party talks succeed."
Belfast Telegraph Digital