Analysis: Much-derided ‘graduated response’ succeeds in its first objective and could secure return parade

The Orange Order parade passes along the Crumlin Road Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
The Orange Order parade passes along the Crumlin Road Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Unionism’s ‘graduated response’ came in for a lot of criticism in the days leading up to the Twelfth, but – thus far – it has worked.

The ambiguous strategy set out by political leaders was criticised by nationalists because it involved loyalist paramilitaries and was condemned by plenty of loyalists who wanted a more confrontational response to the Ardoyne parade ruling.

The ‘graduated response’ appeared to have two main objectives: ensuring a peaceful Twelfth in north Belfast and ultimately getting the Orange parade back up the Crumlin Road.

The first of those objectives has been achieved and, in securing a peaceful Woodvale protest, the Orange Order and unionism have made it much more likely that there will be a return parade past the Ardoyne shops.

The plan appeared to be deliberately shrouded in secrecy, with some sources close to the talks behind it speculating that Stormont’s future could be in doubt, in an attempt to draw attention away from street protests and on to the political response.

That, followed by the Orange Order’s sensible decision to keep the Woodvale protest back from police lines, ensure that it was brief and then march away from the flashpoint, had a role in reducing the potential for violence.

It is likely the case that loyalist paramilitaries’ private commitments not to start trouble and the wet weather also played a role in maintaining the peace.

But the Orange, which is often criticised for its lack of strategic thinking, comes out of this having enhanced its reputation – the opposite of the position it was in a year ago, when it was having to explain images of Orangemen attacking police with ceremonial swords.

Now that the Orange can say they have stuck to the Ardoyne determination without a hint of violence, their hand should be greatly strengthened for securing the first return parade on that stretch of road since 2012.

That may take the form of the early Saturday morning march compromise rejected by the Parades Commission in June. If that was to happen and it passed off peacefully, the Parades Commission would find it very difficult next year to justify stopping the evening parade.

If it was to simply repeat this year’s determination, the commission would be making abundantly clear that good behaviour counts for nothing.

That is already what some loyalists think, having looked at how widespread republican rioting in 2012 was, as they see it, rewarded by the commission when it decided to stop the parade the following year in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the violence.

Wiser Orange heads, though they share that analysis of the Parades Commission’s decision-making, realise that any violence is disastrous for the Order.

But, they need to be able to demonstrate to those who will not stay dignified unless they believe it is in their interests to do so that lawful protest might get them to where they want to go.