Put blame where it belongs – the parties

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Those of you with children and grandchildren will probably be familiar with Nanny McPhee.

Her role is to bring order to chaos and discipline to the unruly.

She is the option of last resort, the one who appears when all other options have either failed or been rejected.

“When you need me, but do not want me, I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I must go away.” She’s a bit like the Parades Commission!

The commission exists because the political parties have singularly failed to provide an alternative. They have talked around this issue for years: indeed, they have talked around it, over it and under it.

They have talked about it among themselves and invited ‘outsiders’ to help them.

They have talked and talked and talked and talked. Yet more talks are to begin on Wednesday and they, like all the other talks, will end in failure.

How can I be so sure they will end in failure? Well, there’s actually a very easy way to detect impending failure with any talks process here: it’s when you hear the lead spokesman from a delegation (and it can be any delegation, by the way) say the words “hold on a minute, let’s put this in context”.

Putting something in context usually means ignoring anything that matters to the ‘other side’ and insisting that your own template or blueprint be given priority.

I’ve already heard spokesmen from the DUP, Sinn Fein and UUP trot out the words, so it’s a pretty safe bet that they aren’t even beginning with optimism.

At some point we’ll also hear someone deploy a variation of “the vast majority of parades pass off peacefully, it’s only a few that cause problems”.

I call this the Mrs Lincoln argument, because it’s a bit like saying to the assassinated president’s wife, “but apart from that, how did you enjoy the play?” .

People don’t remember, let alone notice, the parades that pass off peacefully.

They notice and remember the ones that result in protests, violence, stand-offs and heightened tensions.

They notice the ones that dominate the headlines and confirm their opinion that nothing is ever really going to change here.

Also, the parties won’t agree an alternative to the Parades Commission because that would require agreement on a whole range of other issues, too: and that, in turn, would require both courage and a willingness to face down electoral or troublesome elements on their respective sides.

The DUP and UUP will be looking over their shoulders at the TUV and Orange Order, while Sinn Fein will be looking over their shoulders at self-styled residents’ groups.

Given that that’s the reality of the situation I’m not sure why so many people are so determined to put the boot into the Parades Commission. It is impossible – and I really do mean impossible – for them to trot out determinations that can keep everyone happy.

They don’t decide what makes a particular parade ‘contentious’. They can’t be aware of all the nuances and interplays.

They won’t know for certain who is and isn’t serious about compromise. They have been given a job that nobody else wants to do.

Admittedly, they are often very, very bad at the job and some of their determinations strike me as absurd; yet the fact remains that their roots lie in the failure of others so it really is no surprise that they, themselves, aren’t doing a particularly good job.

The commission wasn’t created to solve a problem, it is merely a semi-permanent reminder that the problem hasn’t been solved.

Where I do have a problem with the commission is with the membership. I’ve never had the sense that they are people who have a proper understanding of the background.

Yes, there have been members who have had a particular connection with one side or the other, but that usually means that they bring baggage with them and have usually been content to be the ‘mouthpiece’ for their own side.

Some – Rev Brian Kennaway springs to mind – have lost the support of key elements from their own side because they have been accused of ‘letting their side down’.

The rest tend to fall into the ‘safe pair of hands’ category: they won’t rattle cages or do or say anything radical. Instead, they will keep their heads down and do what is expected of them.

They are good, well-intentioned people who tick all of the boxes required of a quangocrat – but so what?

Their job is not to provide long-term solutions or make a difference; their job is simply to carry the can for elected, well-paid politicians who pay no penalty for failing, time after time, to come up with something better.

Let’s be clear about something – the Parades Commission is never ever going to be the answer to the parading problem. Indeed, it is the worst possible answer (which probably explains the sort of people they select as members).

And given the fact that most of the contentious parades it has to deal with are unionist/loyalist/orange ones it was always going to be hated by that particular side.

So maybe that particular side should stop blaming the commission and start blaming the parties who didn’t and don’t come up with something better.

The political parties seem to go out of their way to avoid the mechanics needed to properly address an ever-widening array of problems: so it’s probably no surprise that they fail as often as they do.

So, instead of yet another negotiating process that is destined to collapse, maybe they should give some serious detailed thought to what sort of vehicle is most likely to produce success and resolution: less talking about talks, in other words, and more talking about the best way of talking to each other.

Then, and only then, can we say goodbye to Nanny McPhee!