Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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A Discussion of Parading Disputes in Northern Ireland
This section discusses a number of options that have been raised by those involved in some way with the issue of parading as a means of resolving the problem of disputed parades. Some of these could be acted on in the short term, while others would need longer term planning and implementation. These are not recommendations but proposals for discussion. There are no simple answers to these ongoing disputes. Nevertheless, some changes are urgently needed since history tells us that the parading issue is capable of causing major inter-communal civil disturbances.
The control of demonstrations, parades and crowds is not a problem restricted to Northern Ireland but is one that is shared with many societies. For instance, two issues that have been the subject of debate in England over recent years has been controlling the often violent behaviour of football fans and the increasing crowds and disruption at the Notting Hill Carnival. A number of questions have been raised and debated in relation to these events: Who should be responsible for the behaviour of people in public spaces? What rights do those people living adjacent to football grounds and the carnival have? Where does the responsibility of a football club or event organiser finish and those of the police begin? Who should pick up the bill for policing? What is the role of elected representatives in resolving these issues? What public accountability should be expected of people who organise events in public areas? These debates are ongoing although some of the issues have been addressed by Cohen (1993) and by Guilianotti, Bonney and Hepworth (1994). At the heart of all these problems are issues of civil rights. At what point should the rights of the individual to express themselves be seen as secondary to the more general good of the community?
In looking at parades there are a number of issues that need to be approached. There are clearly problems with the issue of traditional rights of way but there are also questions raised about the control of parades, the number of parades and the cost of parades. All these issues have to be weighed against the rights of individuals and groups to political and cultural expression. The ideas discussed below are:
12.1 Negotiation and Mediation
Section Eleven demonstrated there are fundamental differences of perception that make it extremely difficult to reach any agreement. Whilst nationalists read all attempts to parade as part of an ongoing Orange conspiracy to dominate them, loyalists see nationalist objections to parades as part of a wider desire among republican activists to destroy Orangeism. For both sides it is a zero-sum game, a situation where one side will win and the other will lose and therefore it is better to stand one’s ground rather than be seen to give any sign of movement. Within the loyalist community, any reduction in traditional parading rights is seen as a further blow in their defence of their British identity. The fears are so great that even those loyalists who do not parade are often prepared to defend the rights of those who do want to parade. As one interested party put it, ‘they see the narrow ground as getting narrower’. Even when face to face negotiations have taken place, as on the Ormeau Road, the lack of trust is so great that any agreement that may be reached is in danger of collapse when it is subjected to public scrutiny and outside political pressures. The representatives of the different groups can only sell the agreement to their constituent groups by giving an interpretation that favours their position. This may well be viewed by the other community as a misrepresentation and therefore substantially different from their interpretation of the compromise. In many of these issues the parading disputes are a local reflection of the problems of negotiating the broader peace process.
In practice all attempts to find a compromise demanded the involvement of outside parties acting as some form of mediator. Those involved last year included the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland (Portadown), the Quakers (Ormeau Road), local politicians (Derry, Springfield Road) and the RUC. But third party involvement also raised problems about neutrality and suspicions of a hidden agenda that outsiders may bring with them. Residents groups and those involved in the republican parades remain very suspicious of the motives of the police in general and loyalists are equally suspicious of the residents groups and anyone who is seen to be trying to force them to compromise.
The different perceptions held by interested parties make any form of mediation difficult, but there are also problems with the role and status of the representatives of those parading and protesting. Loyalist groups do not believe that the leaders or prominent figures in the residents groups represent all the residents of a given area. They have refused to recognise the status of the groups, pointed to the republican background of particular figures and argued that they are no more than Sinn Féin fronts. In each case this is used as a reason not to talk to the residents groups, after all if the leading Unionist politicians refuse to talk to Sinn Féin why should grassroots unionists do so? But there are also problems with the representatives of the loyal institutions. While they have elected officers, in practice these are little more than first among equals, they are not leaders. They can negotiate but they can not agree to a deal. Lodge officials are relatively powerless and this means that they are uncertain of being able to sell any agreement to other members of their organisation. There is a further problem in that lodge officers are elected annually and a deal agreed by officers one year may be rejected by newly elected officials the following year. Furthermore, lodge officers can only negotiate on behalf of their own institution, even if they are a member of other institutions they may have no authority to speak for them. These factors have often confused the issue for nationalists and raised questions of good faith. In fact negotiators on both sides always insist that they must secure agreement for any compromise from a broader constituency. While this is admirably democratic it does pose problems when time is tight. This in turn emphasises the importance of Paisley, and to a lesser extent Trimble, at Drumcree. They had the status to negotiate an agreement, but they also had the authority to bring the crowd along with them. Elsewhere, deals agreed through third parties were always subject to subsequent ratification by residents groups or loyal orders. This took time and offered no certainty of success.
A further complication in the process of mediation is that any agreement inevitably needs to be underwritten by the RUC. Given the level of distrust with which the RUC are held, in particular by nationalists, problems can also arise over who will guarantee that the deal is honoured. It becomes almost inevitable that overtime those involved in negotiation and mediation are also pulled in to the environment of mistrust. It becomes increasingly hard for them to be seen as honest brokers as the results of attempts to negotiate became public. If the perceptions remain that loyalists will lose something or that nationalists will be expected to compromise too far then they become less inclined to talk to intermediaries in the first place.
The work done by intermediaries up to this point has only served to indicate the desperate need for a more general approach to the problem. If those outside the disputes are expecting the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland, the Quakers, or any other intermediary to come up with an overall answer then they are going to be disappointed. Whilst they can be of great assistance in specific areas, no amount of honest intentions, skill, time and patience on behalf of these people will overcome the wider problems of mistrust and a lack of desire to compromise. Indeed, if the parading disputes continue at their present level and resentment increases, it may well become harder not easier, to find negotiated accommodation.
12.2 Guidelines for Parades
The LOCC believe that the adoption of these principles would protect ‘the right to march’ and also protect communities from ‘tension, fear and provocation’. They assert the rights of all groups to use the commercial centres of villages, towns and cities, but point out that such rights are not unconditional. They claim that traditional parades can not override the rights of communities but that demographic changes have to be taken into account. Furthermore parade organisers must give assurances over the behaviour of those taking part while permission for future parades would be dependent upon that good behaviour.
The LOCC principles cover a number of issues. The legal issues will be examined in section 12.4, and the issue of behaviour and responsibility considered in sections 12.5 and 12.7.
Consent or Consensus
The principle of consent is central to the workings of democracy, and yet it is far from a simple principle to apply. In what areas should consent be sought? How often should consent be sought? How should consent be tested - by survey, by local referendum, by public meeting - and who should test it? At what point should it be deemed that an area no longer consents to a parade taking place - when 50% of the population are against it or should it be 75% or more? Consent may well be an important principle for judging the merits of parades but it must be realised that it is not simple to put into practice. Not only are the mechanics of such a form of local democracy not in place at present but it is not easy to see when they would ever be put in place.
The LOCC principles suggest that the consent of the residents is an absolute requirement before a parade or political event can take place in, or near, any area. The introduction of such a principle based upon local community groups could have far reaching, long term, effects, for open political expression. Therefore, a revision to such a principle might emphasise that whilst communities do not have an absolute right to veto the political expression of others, their feelings should play an important role in any considerations that are made. It is important to remember that the annual recurrence of many loyalist parades developed in the last 100 years when the absolute right of the loyal orders to parade, whenever and wherever they wanted, was rarely if ever questioned. Crucially, similar rights of expression were not afforded to the nationalist community. Put simply, in the area of public political expression there was clear discrimination. It could, therefore, be argued that whilst absolute rights of veto would not create a healthy democratic climate there is still a continuing imbalance of political expression, albeit as a legacy from past political structures as well as continuing political divisions. Under new conditions therefore it might be argued that no Orange parade necessarily has the right to take place, however ‘traditional’ they may be, since those ‘traditional’ rights were based upon a grave imbalance of power. But it might also be argued that no Orange parade can necessarily be excluded exclusively on the principle that local consent has not been gained. In the same way, loyalist communities do not have the absolute right to exclude demonstrations from their areas and particularly from town centres. Perhaps it would be of more use to talk in terms of ‘consensus', rather than ‘consent’, when examining the right to parade, this in turn would re-emphasise the need for ongoing dialogue between the opposing parties. However, at the moment consensus has connotations of compromise which neither side wishes to make.
The LOCC principles have received a broad acceptance within the nationalist community but there have been no formal responses to them from within the unionist community. These principles may well be able to be used as the basis for a more widely accepted series of guidelines, but they would need the acceptance of the unionist community to be workable. The questions that we have raised over the issue of consent illustrates some of the questions that would need to be addressed to achieve a more broadly acceptable series of guidelines for parades.
12.3 A Parading Commission
A parading commission could either be made up of neutral or independent parties, or it could include representatives of both communities under an independent chair. In either case the commission could take submissions from all those with an interest in the issue. The commission could evaluate the general ideas that have been addressed by the LOCC but it could also address some of the more practical constraints that are regularly imposed on parades, and consider whether they might be more generally applied (see 11.6). It could consider the more abstract principles of ‘consent’ and ‘tradition’ and evaluate the arguments between the ‘right to parade’ and the ‘right not to suffer parades’, which are so often invoked but have not been examined in detail. The commission would then produce a set of general guidelines upon which the right of public political expression could be based (see Bryson and McCartney 1994: 154-156 for a similar suggestion).
The commission could also be asked to address the specific parades that have been opposed in recent years and perhaps offer a blue-print for the forthcoming marching season. Although it would only have an advisory role, and the final decisions would be left to the RUC, the commission could offer an overview and make some suggestions on how each of the parades in Belfast, Bellaghy, Derry, Downpatrick, Dunloy, Lurgan, Portadown, Rosslea and other places might be approached. But it would present the suggest ions as a package, addressing the marching season as a single extended event. Such an overview might suggest a different pattern from the present one whereby each dispute is seen as another step on a one way path of gains or losses.
There could be a number of advantages to a commission:
The commission then could work on the same principles as mediation and negotiation. It would try to seek a workable compromise over the general right to parade and it could advise, or make recommendations, on specific disputes. The failure of any of the local level attempts at compromise may imply that a commission would have no more success. However, the very fact that it would provide an overview which would include all current disputes may mean that each side would see both gains and losses emerging from the process and we could thereby move away from the zero-sum game.
While the aim of the commission would be to address some of the immediate issues surrounding parades, it could also be asked to evaluate some of the longer term ideas, such as a permanent tribunal, more formal ‘planning permission’ and changes to the legislation which we discuss below.
12.4 Use of the Law
Despite their criticism of present legislation, the LOCC have been willing to use legal means in an attempt to have injunctions placed on parades along the Ormeau Road. At the same time the preamble to the LOCC principles also emphasises the need to deal with the ‘tension, fear and intimidation’ that may accompany parades. Only Part II of the Public Order (NI) Order 1987, which is concerned with ‘Processions and Meetings’ has been invoked in the current dispute, but Part III of the act deals with ‘Acts intended or likely to stir up hatred or arouse fear’ which LOCC say is a large part of the problem.
Given the nature of the state of Northern Ireland since its foundation and the persistent violence of the past thirty years, then many of the symbols that appear in loyalist and republican parades can and will arouse fear in the other community. A UVF or Republican flag can appear threatening, many of the songs, tunes and chants that are part of the ‘folk’ cultures in both communities can be perceived as intimidating. This situation can only be alleviated over the course of time. However, a greater understanding of those fears from parade organisers could be reflected in the actions of those on parade in sensitive areas. Alternatively, this approach may demand the more robust policing of sectarianism in public demonstrations. The problem with this approach is always the judgement of intimidation. Article 9, Paragraph 4 of the Public Order Order indicates that intent has to be proved. Prosecution in such cases is notoriously difficult and this is perhaps why the legislation is not widely used (see Bryson and McCartney 1994:144-156 for a more detailed discussion on the Public Order Order).
Nevertheless, difficult though it might be, perhaps it is time for judgements to be made on the broader issue of public behaviour at parades. Some aspects that could be considered are fairly obvious. They include the general behaviour of both those on parade and spectators including ‘hangers on’, the music that is played and the chanting that accompanies particular music, the flags and banners that are carried, the size and length of the parade as well as its make up and the reason for the parade. Many of these have already been subject to both police and voluntary constraints and will be considered in more detail in the next sections.
12.5 Responsible Parading
One recent example can illustrate the argument. The Orange Order has claimed that the bands were a key factor in the increase in problems at parades (Montgomery and Whitten 1995:34-3 5), to an extent this was also implicit in an earlier report produced by the Centre for the Study of Conflict (Bryan, Fraser and Dunn 1995). While the rise of blood and thunder bands is partly responsible for the increase in the number of parades and their overt sectarian nature, it is parades organised by the loyal orders that have caused most controversy. Even in those cases where bandsmen have been prominent in causing trouble it is Orange lodges that have given support to the bands by hiring them, and it is Orangeism which is perceived as the cultural root of parading by those outside the institutions. It is not adequate to say ‘we can not control the bands’ or ‘we are not responsible for the people on the pavements’. Parade organisers should recognise that they must take responsibility for all aspects of the parade and all those features that might cause offence or disturbance to other people. The loyal orders have a wide range of rules and regulations which the participants of parades are expected to follow: they provide marshals or stewards at parades, they demand that bands being hired sign a contract, and they do - on occasions - take actions if members or bands transgress the rules. However, the recognition that greater consideration should be given to the total content of parades, which is made by Montgomery and Whitten, can only prove of real benefit to the public perception of the Order if these rules and constraints are known to those outside the parading body. The loyal orders have taken many steps to address criticism of their parades, part of the problem is that they have failed to publicise these acts for fear of being seen to compromise with protesters (specific constraints on parades are considered in more detail in section 12.7 below). It is not just a matter of imposing rules and regulations on a parade, it is also important to be seen to do so.
How could parade organisers take greater responsibility for their parades? Some of these matters could be dealt with swiftly and voluntarily, while others may need to be imposed on parade organisers.
Stewarding or Marshalling
Externally Imposed Constraints
Are there any lessons this example could teach us? Parades take place on open public streets not enclosed grounds. However, the organisers of parades have authority over the proceedings and should be expected to take more responsibility for what takes place during the parades. At present we have a situation where groups appear to be ‘parading without responsibility’: if trouble occurs the blame is often laid elsewhere.
12.6 A Parading Tribunal
My inclination, and it is coming round to a firm view, is that it would be better to have an independent body examine the propriety of a parade being allowed into a certain area. The police could refer any notice of a contentious parade to a tribunal. They would state their views as professional police officers and the organisers would be able to present their case in justification. Local people through their representatives, could express their view (BT 1-5-86).
There seems to be no precedent for such a body dealing with parades or other forms of public political expression. However, given the large numbers of parades every year, the continuous growth in numbers and the increasing costs and disruption they can cause there is a good argument for an independent body to oversee all parades. A comparison can be made with the area of employment which has been subject to legislative constraints. Laws governing equal opportunities and fair employment practices as well as tribunals for the redress of unfair dismissal or industrial disputes are common to most modem western societies. Whilst the need for such laws and bodies is probably universally accepted, they are also often treated with suspicion. This has been particularly true in Northern Ireland where many Protestants see the fair employment system as inevitably reducing their chances of employment. Nevertheless, employment practices are not as politically contentious as they were thirty years ago and, despite criticisms, progress has been made in redressing the balance between employment opportunities between the two communities (FEC Annual Report 1996, IN 29-3-96, Sheehan 1995). Could the area of public parades benefit from similar legislation and structures?
The idea of a parading tribunal has received support from many quarters, but little flesh has been put on the bones of this idea. This section suggests possible ways in which a tribunal might operate. Other possible structures might be possible. Again, these ideas are offered as a stimulus to further discussion.
A Judicial Tribunal
A tribunal would need authority to underwrite its decisions and would also need to be recognised as even handed and independent. How does one ensure that such a body can seen as independent and yet have some power? On the one hand, nationalists would expect such a body to be as far removed form the forces of the state as possible, before they could put any faith in it. On the other hand, to have practical power, and to gain the acceptance of many in the loyalist community, it would need to be set up within existing legal and policing structures. Clearly, any direct involvement either by the police or by government officials would be problematic. However, the present willingness of some of the residents groups to take legal action in advance of their demands suggests that they do see the judiciary as having some independence from other forces of the state. Possibly, therefore, a panel which is chaired by a member of the judiciary with wide civil rights experience might have some hope of being accepted.
A judicial tribunal could be brought into play over contentious parades. It could be asked to deliberate on the matter by the police or by the Secretary of State. It could take evidence from all interested parties before arriving at a decision. Its decision could be forwarded to the Secretary of State who might then act on it, in which case the decision would ultimately be a political one. Or its authority could have the force of law and the police would be expected to proceed according to the tribunal’s decision.
Public Order vs. Civil Rights
In general, a tribunal of some kind would make the issue of parades the subject of debate and of reasoned argument. It would bring the issue into the public domain and ensure that the outcome was open to public scrutiny.
12.7 Parade ‘Planning’ Permission
A formal application to hold an annual parade would have to be made well in advance of the parade and the information about all planned parades in an area would be made public. This could be done by publishing the details in a local newspaper and listing them in a public place.
When the demand for seven days notice for all parades was introduced in 1987 it was greeted with protests, but increasing the notice should not cause practical problems to parade organisers since the dates of most parades are known well in advance. Would it be unreasonable to require parade organisers to advise of their parades three months or even six months in advance? Or even require them to list all the parades and their routes at the beginning of each year? Obviously there would need to be a ‘fast track’ procedure for ‘single issue’ parades but since these tend to be less controversial that should not be too great a problem.
If most parades are traditional and unchanging it is difficult to see the objections and there may well be hidden benefits for parade organisers. One of the complaints raised by residents is that there are always new parades being ‘invented’ or that parades take them by surprise. Last year there was considerable confusion over the number of parades that would be going down the Ormeau Road. Publicising the dates of parades, the probable size, the likely time the parade would take place and the reasons for the parade may well go some way to increasing a wider understanding of loyalist parades and dispelling the suspicion and confusion that arises through misinformation. If nothing else it could be seen as gesture of goodwill which costs nothing.
Constraints and Objections
Such a system would also allow any objections to a parade to be heard and considered, in confidence if necessary. It would give an insight into a range of attitudes to parades and might allow complaints to be dealt with before they become major issues. Having requested permission, the organisers could make their case, any opponents could state their objections, the RUC could offer their assessment and the tribunal could adjudicate. In such a system both the arguments, the reasoning and the conditions or terms of permission would be open to public scrutiny. Conditions may be imposed so that parades would not be allowed into particular areas. However, there may be no need to stop particular parades or even reduce the number of parades but simply need to ensure that organisers accept their responsibility to the wider community. By making the decision well enough in advance there would also be time for appeals to be made if the decision was felt to be unfair in any way.
In 1995 most emphasis was placed on the rerouting of parades, but the RUC can and do demand a range of specific conditions on parade organisers. In some cases the loyal orders have imposed restraints on themselves. Often these conditions are not publicised, but this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand some loyalists would argue that agreeing to any constraints is a denial of their rights, but on the other hand failing to publicise voluntarily imposed constraints can suggest a lack of willingness to compromise and fail to show goodwill where it does exist. For example the Apprentice Boys voluntarily imposed a number of constraints on bands and regalia to ensure they were allowed to parade the city walls in Derry last summer and the local Belfast Walker Club have long restricted the flags they carry along the Ormeau Road. However, in both cases the impact of these self-imposed restrictions was lost because they were not announced publicly.
The sorts of constraints that have either been offered or imposed by the loyal orders in recent disputes include:
Any of these constraints can be imposed voluntarily by parade organisers or they could be imposed by an outside authority. Voluntary constraint has often been concealed from the public debate because it is perceived to be an act of weakness, to be a response to pressure from the other side. But there is another side to this argument. Voluntary restraints can also be imposed from a position of strength, they can be a recognition that a complaint has some validity and must be addressed. As part of a zero-sum game a constraint is seen as a loss, in a more open system a voluntarily imposed constraint can be seen as an attempt to improve a situation and to work towards a more widely acceptable means of maintaining and developing cultural traditions.
Guaranteeing the Right to Parade
The members of the LOCC have suggested that they might be willing to accept parades in the future, but present lack of trust undermines such an offer. An independent body could provide longer term guarantees that concessions were not a one-way street. It could evaluate ongoing discussions, it could suggest that constraints are imposed for one, two or more parades or that they would be reviewed the following year. The body could also suggest parameters for protesters and impose demands or conditions on the ways that parades are challenged. By introducing such a system it may be possible that it is the force of argument and the ongoing behaviour of both parade participants and protesters that are considered in deciding on the propriety of a parade and not the weight of numbers on the day. The police would be seen to be acting on a publicly recognised agreement. Importantly, if one particular group uses force in a given situation then that may well prejudice future decisions. The right to parade or to protest at parades would therefore be balanced by the demand for responsibility to the wider society.
The Rights of Residents
One interested individual has suggested that anyone adjudicating over a disputed parade would require ‘the wisdom of Solomon’. There would be awkward judgements to be made on a whole range of issues. However, many of those judgements are, in effect, already made but the process is never public and the principles are never clear.
These ideas discussed above may have been suggested too late to resolve the immediate disputes. As with the introduction of the Public Order Order in 1987, any attempts to find long term solutions may well cause a number of short term problems. Whilst better control of parades could be forced upon organisations, there are a number of suggestions through which they could voluntarily improve their own control mechanisms, even suspend parades in an area for a particular length of time. The long term result of these measures would be to make parade organisers more responsible and accountable for the events they organise. The aim is not to prevent parades from taking place but rather to encourage a political environment where civil rights are respected and political and religious expression can take place without threatening or inconveniencing the lives of others.
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