Orange Order bids to save parades panel axed by Theresa Villiers
The Orange Order is to meet with all the unionist parties in a bid to overturn a last-minute decision by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers not to set up a panel to report on parading in north Belfast.
And in a separate development, the main churches here could be drawn into attempts to resolve long-running issues around parades. This follows a call from Canon Ian Ellis, editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, for them to form a forum which the Order could attend. Canon Ellis said he hoped the Catholic Church would be involved.
Last night loyalist feeling was running high over Ms Villiers' decision to drop a panel aimed at resolving contentious parading issues in north Belfast. However, she was standing by the move.
"The Government remains fully committed to seeking a resolution to the issue of parading in north Belfast," a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State said.
"It became apparent that there was insufficient support for the proposed panel among some of those most closely involved in the dispute. This was reflected, to varying degrees, on both sides of the community.
"The Secretary of State therefore decided, on balance, not to go ahead with setting up the proposed panel. We will continue in our efforts to work with those involved to resolve this matter."
The NIO spokeswoman declined to answer further queries.
Unionists were particularly incensed that they only heard about the decision to scrap the panel in a televised Press conference with Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, shortly before Christmas.
"She (Theresa Villiers) has treated unionism with contempt and cut some sort of side deal with republicanism, that is the obvious explanation," claimed Rev Mervyn Gibson, grand chaplain of the Orange Order and a member of the DUP talks team.
Ms Villiers had suggested that not all sides in the dispute were in favour of the parading panel, which had originally been suggested by the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Gibson challenged Ms Villiers' suggestion that there was opposition to the proposal on both sides of the community. He insisted that all unionist parties - with the exception of West Belfast UPRG - had agreed. He was backed up in this by Ukip's David McNarry.
"A decision excluding West Belfast UPRG was finally taken by the unionist and Orange leaders to formally advise the Secretary of State that 'we' were content for her to proceed with appointing a chairperson and members to the parades panel as defined in her published terms of reference," he said.
There is suspicion in DUP ranks that smaller unionist parties like Ukip and the TUV want to block any agreement in the hope that a hardline stance will gain them votes in May's general election. The DUP wants to keep parading in north Belfast separate from the Stormont House Agreement, which proposes that parading powers are devolved to Stormont in June this year, with a new regime for regulating parades starting in 2016.
If this goes according to plan, it would still leave the problem of keeping this year's marching season stable until next year.
That is where a forum involving the churches could come in, if the churches agree. Rev Gibson, himself a Presbyterian minister, said the order would have no problem in meeting the Catholic Church as part of the process.
"We have no issue with that; we have met them before," Rev Gibson said.
Rev Norman Hamilton, convenor of the Presbyterian Church's committee dealing with public affairs, said his Church was prepared to take part but would want a wider agenda in which the Order listened as well as talked.
"There are many more issues facing the loyalist community than parading. We do need to engage around all of the issues that have been flagged up over the years, especially around education and unemployment. We need to build substantive hope for the new generation," Rev Hamilton said.
He added he was pleased that prominent Presbyterians had already endorsed the idea.