Back in July 1996, when the Drumcree dispute was bringing widespread disorder to Northern Ireland, a review of parading was commissioned by then secretary of state, Sir Patrick Mayhew. Until then it had been for the RUC to deal with any parading disputes.
Following the publication of the North Report, the Parades Commission was born, an independent decision-maker intended to take arbitration of contentious parades out of the hands of the police and politicians.
While the body was controversial and angered unionists — as the vast majority of parades ruled on were loyalist — 23 years on and parading is no longer the annual hot potato it once was. After several weeks of controversy over a handful of contentious bonfires, is it time for a similar body to take control of the issue?
There were around 235 bonfires at the weekend, and most passed without incident.
A huge fire in Portadown that collapsed narrowly missing spectators and a fire built close to homes and a fire station in Newtownards were among those deemed contentious.
An attempt by two government ministers, Nichola Mallon and Deirdre Hargey, to force police to assist contractors in removing material from a fire in Tigers Bay, built close to an interface, failed after being dismissed by the High Court on Friday evening.
However, there was a disagreement in the Executive, with the DUP and UUP leaders both visiting the north Belfast site and saying it should be allowed to remain. This highlights just how difficult it would be for ministers to assume the role of arbitrating against dangerous or controversial bonfires.
So is it time to regulate the fires in a way that allows a safer expression of loyalist culture with penalties for those who breach rulings?
Previous council-led schemes tried to regulate the fires with a carrot rather than a stick approach, giving grants to local bonfire groups to hold family fun days in exchange for a commitment to not burn flags or effigies. That scheme had limited success with many groups pulling out of the process forgoing what were relatively small sums of money to revert to having the fires managed in whatever way they see fit. The problem with the council scheme is there was only carrot, no stick.
Any independent regulator with powers such as the Parades Commission and legislation to prosecute those who deliberately ignore rulings would carry much more weight. But given there is no political consensus to even accept there is a problem — never mind find a way to regulate for the future — that seems unlikely in time for next year’s Twelfth. Local agreement is always the best way forward but that work must start now in preparation for next year. Instead it seems likely that nothing will happen until a few weeks before bonfire season 2022 when once again we’ll see a repeat of the recent chaos.