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Time for Sinn Fein to fight the Orange corner

Every year in Ulster there are many public parades, most of them organised by the loyal orders, or by marching bands. They are part of our rich cultural diversity.

Moreover, the right to parade, which is a form of peaceful assembly, is one of the fundamental human rights in a liberal and democratic society.

We are coming towards the end of the summer and so it is possible to look back and reflect on the parades that have taken place this year.

The Twelfth in 2010 was a glorious sunny day and I was impressed by the number of spectators at all of the demonstrations.

They enjoyed the good music, from a wide range of bands, as well as the colour and pageantry of the day and the artistry of the banners. There was a general feeling that it had been a 'good Twelfth'.

The Orange Order must be commended on the way that it is seeking to develop the Twelfth celebrations and enhance the experience for spectators. This comes under the title Orangefest and it is not about replacing the Twelfth demonstrations, but about complementing them with additional cultural activities and events.

I spent much of the day in Newtownards, where I was the platform speaker, and I was delighted to discover that several young people playing Lambeg drums were also from north Belfast. They had learnt to play at the Boys' Model School through a project supported by the Ulster-Scots Agency.

There is also a growing awareness of the tourist potential of parades. I was in Scarva on July 13 for the demonstration organised by the Royal Black Institution and was pleased to join with officials from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland - who were also guests of the organisers - to watch the parade. The village was crowded, it was a wonderful family day and we were all agreed on the potential that is there to be developed.

Unfortunately, there are still some people who have a deep antipathy towards both the loyal orders and the marching bands and whose antipathy and hatred spill over into violence.

We have seen that again this year with serious arson attacks on five more Orange halls. Two were damaged in Tyrone, one of them totally destroyed, two were damaged in Antrim and another in Donegal, and that does not include other cases of minor criminal damage.

Such attacks are not just an attack on a building; they are an attack on a community, in the same way as an attack on a church or a GAA hall. Unfortunately, very few of those who carry out such sectarian 'hate crimes' are ever detected, or convicted.

We also saw the appalling violence on the Crumlin Road on the Twelfth night, which included the attempted murder of a female police officer. I welcome the fact that, week by week, more people are being charged in relation to the appalling dissident republican violence on that occasion.

The police, the Public Prosecution Service and the courts all have a role to play in dealing with the culprits and deterring others.

It was especially interesting to see that one of those charged in relation to the events on the Crumlin Road had previously been filmed at a dissident republican protest in Londonderry. Another republican who was charged with rioting is alleged to have travelled 30 miles from Ballymena.

I welcome the fact that Sinn Fein has condemned the violence on the Twelfth night and the attacks on Orange halls. Indeed, Martin McGuinness said that those who attacked an Orange hall near Pomeroy were "motivated solely by sectarian bigotry".

However, when dissident republicans are challenged about the violence, they respond by pointing out that, for many years, Sinn Fein itself encouraged violent opposition to Orange parades. What we see today is the legacy of those decades of demonisation.

That is why we need more than words; we need positive action from republicans towards creating a spirit of tolerance and acceptance towards the culture of Orangeism and marching bands.

The Parades Commission once again demonstrated that it is a flawed and failed organisation. Its decisions are often inconsistent and incoherent and a number of the recent decisions have been particularly bizarre - including one in relation to a Royal Black Institution church parade in east Belfast. Too many decisions are utterly inexplicable and incomprehensible. There is also a total lack of transparency about the process. That is why we need a new start, a new system and a new structure. The need for a new system is absolutely clear and that is the challenge that lies before us.

The Orange Order has an educational outreach programme, which does very valuable work in explaining Orangeism to other communities. There is also important work underway in relation to marching bands, which are probably the largest community arts sector in Northern Ireland.

There is certainly more to be done, but it is time for republicans to step up to the mark.