The Orange Order is determined to see the Parades Commission abolished, but will not accept just any replacement, Orange Grand Secretary Drew Nelson tells SAM McBRIDE
WHILE the overwhelming majority of its parades are relaxed occasions of music and colour, disputes over contentious Orange Order parades have been immensely damaging to the institution.
Disputes at Drumcree and Whiterock which quickly descended into violence tarnished the Orange’s reputation and led to an unknown number of Orangemen walking away from the Protestant fraternal organisation.
Speaking to the News Letter in the Order’s Schomberg House headquarters, Drew Nelson, who as Grand Secretary of the Orange Order is seen by many as its single most influential figure, instantly accepts that this summer’s disputes are a problem for the Order.
Although Orangemen themselves were not involved in the violence (and in Ardoyne on the Twelfth marched with decorum past a baying sectarian mob), the images which emerged from that now annual flashpoint, along with the video of a loyalist band playing a sectarian song outside a Catholic church, have done nothing to advance the Orange cause.
The Dromore solicitor says: “There’s no doubt that that [summer violence] affects us.
“It creates for us one of our greatest dilemmas because we feel that our rights are being restricted by some bizarre decisions [by the Parades Commission].
“We want to maintain our right to parade peaceably but if there’s continual violence against us exercising those rights, even when those rights are upheld by the Parades Commission and the police, I think that reflects into our membership in this sense: some people are discouraged from joining the institution who don’t want to be associated with any type of disruption whatsoever and perhaps other people are encouraged to join who maybe otherwise would find the institution a bit of a tame organisation.
“But this has been a continual theme throughout our history.”
Central to Orange anger this summer – and more so than for many years – are several determinations by the Parades Commission which have caused bewilderment and frustration.
The commission’s extraordinary restrictions on Ardoyne Orangemen – which effectively forced them to leave the Twelfth field in south Belfast almost immediately after making the long parade there – was widely viewed by unionists as a reward for dissident republicans who have repeatedly broken the law at Ardoyne while the loyal Orders have stuck to Parades Commission determinations.
The actions of the Royal Black Institution on Black Saturday in openly flouting a commission determination not to play outside a Catholic church – something which would appear to have backfired on the loyal Orders – has led to all-out war between the loyal orders and the Parades Commission.
Now renewed attempts are being made behind the scenes to remove a commission which the loyal Orders have hated since its inception more than a decade ago.
Mr Nelson says: “The Parades Commission effectively operates as a secret court. A lot of – I think all of – their determinations are in private; they do no publicly justify their decisions; they take decisions that we believe are ill-judged, wrong and sometimes could be described as bizarre.
“We feel that during this year that situation seems to have exacerbated and the number of decisions that they take that seem to us to be bizarre and seem to almost have an element of vindictiveness attached to them has increased.
“We’re finding it difficult to understand why that has increased so much this year although there is a strong feeling, I think, coming to the fore within the institution and a bit within the wider community that this is a softening up process and that they are turning the screw on the loyal Orders and the bands community in terms of their decisions with a view to softening them up so that this will lead into another review of the legislation ... and that we’ll accept anything that’s offered to us.”
Mr Nelson says that several people from different backgrounds have expressed that suspicion to him in recent days.
If that feeling becomes widespread within the Order, is there not a danger that it will be counter-productive and any proposal to replace the Parades Commission will be rejected?
“I think it could be counter-productive because I think it’s part of the character of people who live in Northern Ireland that if they feel that they’re being forced to do something that they naturally react against it.
“I would like to see, and the institution would welcome, a review of the legislation and regulations that govern parades and other public space events but it’s important that it’s done in a way which is obviously open and transparent and that it’s not rushed because of the present difficulty and hype surrounding parades we don’t rush into something.
“It has to be done in a proper timeframe and has to be something that’s properly considered and thought through.”
Parades Commission chief Peter Osborne agreed to be interviewed by the News Letter at the end of August.
However, despite repeated attempts to arrange a date for the interview, the organisation’s PR adviser has not responded since then.
The Grand Secretary – who has been a key modernising figure within the Order since his election in 2005 – does accept that there should be somebody to adjudicate when one side wants to march and another side wants to stop that march, saying that “at the end of the day, somebody has to take a decision about a parade”.
Mr Nelson sees three possible decision-makers when it comes to deciding on contentious parades – the local authority (in Northern Ireland, the local council or the Stormont Executive), the police or a special body independent of politicians and the police, as is currently the case with the Parades Commission.
He says that Northern Ireland is the only part of western Europe which uses an independent body to decide on contentious parades and, although he acknowledges that there are “unique problems” in Northern Ireland, he says: “I think that it is worth looking at the other models that are in use across Europe and perhaps a little further afield.”
He says that some of the problems arising from parades in Northern Ireland, such as dispute over routes which arise out of communal differences (often ethnic or religious on the continent) are present in other parts of Europe but in those areas the police decide on marches.
“I really think it’s worth taking a look at all of those examples,” he said.
Ten days ago, Mr Nelson was at a contentious parade in Spain with 36 young Orange leaders, funded by an EU grant, to observe and speak to the marchers and police.
“Our problems in Northern Ireland are not unique and I think it is well worth our while – for all parties involved – just to have a look and see if there’s anything out there in other places which might be helpful to us.”