The Government has pledged to consider a demand from unionists and loyalists to set up a commission of inquiry into a parading dispute that has resulted in the restriction of a contentious Orange Order parade in Belfast.
The undertaking from Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers came after unionist political leaders warned that their co-operation in various levels of governance would be affected if such a probe was not ordered.
Senior Orangemen have also called for a series of peaceful protests tomorrow – the most significant day of the loyal order marching calendar – to demonstrate their anger at the decision to prevent the controversial parade passing a nationalist area.
Ms Villiers said: “The Government will want to look carefully at the proposal put forward by unionist leaders this morning.
“We have always made clear our willingness to consider all practical options to resolve the situation in north Belfast. I welcome the efforts being made to try to find a way forward. I am happy to meet unionist leaders to discuss their proposal as soon as possible.”
The Government-appointed Parades Commission cited the potential for public disorder and negative impact on community relations among its reasons for preventing tomorrow evening’s parade by Orangemen proceeding along north Belfast’s Crumlin Road, which is adjacent to the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood.
Politicians and senior Orangemen have pledged a “graduated response” to the commission’s decision.
The vaguely termed commitment was first made last week, when the DUP and UUP walked out of political talks at Stormont.
Some meat was put on the bones yesterday morning at an event in east Belfast hosted by the Orange Order and attended by representatives of a number of unionist and loyalist parties, including two with links to paramilitary groups, which have joined forces to present a united front on the parading dispute.
As well as the planned protest marches, at each main Twelfth event tomorrow Orangemen have been asked to pause for a period of six minutes – the time the Order claims it would take members to walk the disputed stretch of the Crumlin Road.
The crisis has placed a question mark on the future viability of the power-sharing administration at Stormont.
Last week First Minster Peter Robinson went so far as to state that the institutions were “under threat” and yesterday, when asked if they were safe, he did not directly answer the question.
But he did vow: “This is not a one day or a one week battle, this is a long campaign.”
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he supported devolution but added: “It has to be based on principle and the principle is fairness and we are not seeing that in the issue which we are discussing today.”
At yesterday’s event at Ballymacarrett Orange Hall, the political leaders and senior Orangemen all signed a pledge asserting that their campaign will be lawful and peaceful.
But political rivals have accused them of failing to show leadership, being led by the nose by the Orange Order, and placing peace process gains in jeopardy because they did not get their own way on a parade.
Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly insisted nothing should be done to help unionists undermine the Parades Commission.
“Unionists are asking for a commission of inquiry simply because they didn’t get their own way ,” he said.
“Neither unionists nor the British secretary of state should do anything to undermine it.”
While both loyalists and republicans have engaged in serious disorder linked to the parade in recent years, the DUP, UUP and other unionist and loyalist representatives have insisted the Parades Commission had given in to the threat of republican violence.
In recent years when the Orange Order parade was given permission to pass the Ardoyne, republicans rioted.
When it was banned last year, loyalists rioted in the nearby unionist community in Woodvale.
Loyalists have manned a protest camp at the volatile community interface ever since, requiring a policing operation costing around £10 million.
At yesterday’s event, Orange Order Grand Master Edward Stevenson said: “The time has come for all unionists to stand up and be counted.”
Mr Stevenson said throwing “one stone” would undermine the Orange cause.
“If your view of protest is violence or if you seek to cause agitation within Unionism, please stay away from our protests,” he said.