'Dialogue Holds the Key for Harmony', by Bryan & Jarman
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Belfast Telegraph, 31.1.97
Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan
The Independent Review of Parades and
Marches was set up as a result of the disturbances and protests
that arose during the summer of 1996. Its brief was to review
the existing legal and informal mechanisms for dealing with disputes
over public processions. The main recommendation, to set up a
parades commission to oversee and adjudicate on disputes, has
been the focus of most comments. However this is only a part of
their conclusions and it needs to be put within the broader context
of the rest of the report.
The published report is a substantial
document with 43 main recommendations, which address three main
1. The need to reinforce the rule of law.
2. To acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of both marchers and residents, and of both communities.
3. The need for a more structured decision
making process with the emphasis on dialogue, transparency and
The disputes last summer, and particularly
the protests around Drumcree were seen to undermine the rule of
law and the authority of the RUC. The report therefore recommends
that the role of the police should be to uphold the law rather
than adjudicate between competing claims to civil rights. While
this would mark a break with established practice at parades in
Northern Ireland, the proposed system would be similar that in
force in Scotland, where the local authorities make the formal
decisions over controversial parades, albeit with police advice.
A key element of the report is to identify
the right to peaceful free assembly as a fundamental civil right.
However it notes that this right is not unlimited, and it brings
with it a responsibility to consider the rights of others within
the community. Parading is not therefore an absolute right. But
neither is there an absolute right to withhold consent. Instead
the report recommends a need for sensitivity to the area in which
the parade is to pass, the nature and history of the parade and
the impact it will have on the local community.
The report suggests that town and city
centres should be open to all legal parades but that more consideration
should be given to those in villages, which will have a larger
residential population. And while parades should, in general,
be acceptable along arterial roads, the local circumstances must
also be considered.
But while the location is important
the type, nature, size and number of parades in any area must
also be taken into account, and so too should the behaviour of
paraders and protesters at previous events.
These general guidelines attempt to
steer a middle course between the competing claims of tradition
and consent, and they point to the key areas which need to be
balanced when reaching accommodation.
But reaching accommodation between these
competing rights has been the big problem over the past two years.
To date the emphasis has been on encouraging local dialogue and
agreement, with mediators brought in on occasions. The report
recommends a more structured process, and one which would be
co-ordinated and overseen by the parades commission, this is set
out in the form of a `decision tree' within the text.
It has been claimed that such a body
would only lead to an increase in spurious protests, but this
is perhaps unduly pessimistic. The review team foresee that most
parade applications would be processed as at present, without
protest and without any conditions being imposed. Nor does it
guarantee that all protests will treated in the same way, the
commission will be able to reject spurious objections without
imposing conditions on the parade.
Only more serious complaints will lead
to meetings between the commission and the various parties, and
if agreement is not reached at this stage then independent mediators
may be brought in. If the issue is still unresolved other interested
parties: commercial interests, clergy, community workers, will
be consulted before a final `Determination' is made by the commission.
The intention is to draw out the process
and allow more time for dialogue and consultation than at present.
Although it will not be possible to force people to engage in
dialogue, the report recommends that failure to follow these procedures
should be taken into consideration in the final decision.
Furthermore the report recommends increasing
the notification time for parades from seven days to 21 days to
facilitate this process. This is likely to be one of the aspects
that the loyal orders object to, however it is something which
the Orangemen in Liverpool have been doing, without legal sanction,
for some years.
The Determination set down by the commission
will be legally binding and the RUC will be expected to enforce
it. But there is an opportunity for the Chief Constable to appeal
the decision to the Secretary of State. So the final decision
over the right to parade will be a political one, and not a public
order one. However the police will still retain their power to
intervene in the interests of public order on the day, although
this will not remove the moral authority of the original decision.
What impact would all these recommendations
have on the disputes at present? Clearly this is highly speculative
especially as it is far from clear whether the government will
introduce any legislation in time for this year's marching season.
Much will also depend on the willingness of the parties to the
dispute to engage in dialogue and co-operate with the commission.
But if the emphasis is on confirming and extending civil rights
then a different pattern to last year might emerge.
If town centres are regarded as acceptable
for all legal parades, then the parades by the loyal orders in
places like Armagh, Derry, Newry and Strabane, which were rerouted
last year, may well go ahead. But similarly an application from
the nationalist community to parade in the centre of Lurgan and
Portadown should be treated favourably.
The question of the most persistent
disputes, in Bellaghy, in Dunloy, at Drumcree and on the Ormeau
Road, is more difficult to call. It may well be that given certain
agreements on the music, regalia, the numbers parading and the
number of parades in a year, some form of access to a church parade
by local people may be seen as reasonable. However against that
would need to be balanced the behaviour at previous parades and
an expression of willingness to confirm that the same rights apply
to both communities. But any decision taken in 1997 would not
guarantee a similar outcome in 1998.
Moving forward on this issue will demand
a certain degree of trust, toleration and openness, factors which
have been singularly lacking in attempts to reach a compromise.
The initial responses to the report have largely been cautious
and critical but as John Dunlop said at the press launch if anyone
has any better ideas they should bring them forward.
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