In a rare show of solidarity, rival unionist leaders yesterday came together to take action after the Parades Commission stopped the Twelfth return parade past Ardoyne.
Every unionist party with the exception of UKIP and the Conservatives signed a statement which set out four key actions:
l The effective end of unionist engagement with the Parades Commission;
l The immediate withdrawal from the Stormont talks set up to resurrect the Haass negotiations on parades, flags and the past;
l Support for peaceful protests against the Parades Commission decision but a strong argument against violence;
l An unspecified “graduated response” by political unionism.
The statement was signed by the three main unionist parties – the DUP, UUP and TUV as well as the UVF-linked PUP and UDA-linked UPRG pressure group.
But while the statement repeatedly urged a peaceful response to the ruling, it laid out a grim prediction of the potential for serious rioting.
It said: “This Parades Commission determination creates a serious situation for Northern Ireland. We know, having seen republican threats of violence being rewarded, the conclusion is swiftly drawn that violence pays.
“We have, for some time, been aware that such an absurd parades determination would bring with it a very real risk of widespread violence and disorder.”
The parties claimed that the Parades Commission decision showed that its members “place no value on a relationship with unionism and have treated our advice with contempt”.
It added: “As a consequence we, as leaders of the unionist community, see no value in continuing contact with a Parades Commission that does not listen and is immune to reason.”
The unionist leaders argued that if violence was to be averted they needed to provide an “alternative means to channel justified anger and outrage” and referred to “a graduated unionist response involving the Orange Institution, the PUL community and political unionism”.
In a hint as to how that would unfold, it added: “Political action in tandem with peaceful and lawful protests is the path we must follow.”
And, in a strong warning against attempts to use violence, the statement added: “We stress that the only way to secure widespread support throughout the community is conditioned on a repudiation of violence.
“We cannot lead a campaign against republicans who use the threat of violence as a means of influencing decision-making if there are those within our community who stoop to these same foul methods.”
Last night an element of the “graduated response” became clear when it emerged that the DUP had halted the North South Ministerial Council meeting scheduled for today.
Last night Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the DUP of “dancing to the Orange Order’s tune” and said he was “disappointed that the North South Ministerial Council meeting will not proceed as planned”.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said he was “disappointed” at the move but hoped that it was “only a temporary setback and that all the parties will return to the talks as early as possible”.
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said: “Unionists have used the parades and the PSNI as a scapegoat for their own failures.”
UKIP’s David McNarry, a veteran Orangeman, described the Parades Commission decision as “provocative and places the commission beyond the pale”.
He added: “It falls now to the Secretary of State to dismiss the commission and reverse its decision.
“Understandably, unionist anger is palpable. It needs to be managed and controlled..violence is not the answer.
“Pulling out of talks that they should never have been involved in, in the first place, is only gesture politics.”
North Belfast DUP MP Nigel Dodds said that “once again the Parades Commission have shown their weakness and the threat of republican violence has once again carried more weight than dialogue attempts at compromise.
“The united stance of the unionist leadership in calling for only peaceful and lawful protest stands in stark contrast to GARC’s menacing threat of using ‘radical means’ and Martin McGuinness threatening ‘catastrophe’ if the parade was allowed to proceed.”
TUV vice-chairman and Orangeman Richard Cairns said: “In recent weeks TUV has been involved in a united unionist effort to resolve this situation.
“From the outset we have made it clear that there should be political consequences if the north Belfast situation was not resolved and specifically we made the point that while there was once a cry of ‘No talk, no walk’, the unionist response to today’s outcome should be ‘No walk, no talk’.
“We therefore very much welcome the announcement that the DUP and UUP are withdrawing from the leaders’ talks. All unionists are now in agreement that the Haass process has been fruitless.”
But Alliance Party leader David Ford said: “I am horrified and disgusted by the utterly irresponsible and disgraceful decision of the DUP and UUP to withdraw from the all-party talks. In doing so, they will inevitably escalate tensions over parading.”
See Morning View, page 54