As we enter July and a number of traditional parades take place there is a degree of apprehension in much of the community due to what may happen with regard to a few contested parades.
Today the Ulster Unionist Party has tabled a motion for debate in the Assembly.
It is essential that we work to resolve the current issues around protests against parades. There is no reason why tensions should mount at this time of year and the build up to the Twelfth of July in particular should be seen as anything other than the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of our citizens to express and celebrate their cultural heritage.
The scenes we have witnessed in recent years, where marchers and police have been attacked by republican protestors when a parade is permitted to go ahead, were complemented last year by the sight of the police being attacked by loyalists when a parade was prevented from returning home.
Such sights do nothing to further any cause or help Northern Ireland as a whole. As a society we really must reassess how we treat each other, especially those who hold different views.
Unfortunately the impression has been created in Northern Ireland for too many people that, if you don’t like something, it will be removed. Whether that be the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall, or the sight of an Orange parade on a major arterial route which has been used for decades.
Many of our recent difficulties can be directly traced back to agitation by Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams said at a Sinn Fein Conference in Meath in 1995: “Ask any activist in the North, did Drumcree happen by accident, and he will tell you ‘no’. Three years of work on the Ormeau Road, Portadown and other parts of Fermanagh and Newry, Armagh and up in Derry. Three years of work went into creating that situation … the type of scene changes we need to focus on and develop and exploit.”
And of course the Parades Commission were only too keen to facilitate them.
There is a great deal of talk and focus on building a shared future and a united community. For that to be meaningful, then diversity must not only be tolerated but welcomed. And diversity must include the right to peaceful expression and celebration of one’s culture and heritage.
The Parades Commission has certainly not helped the situation. We have now reached a situation where violence is seen to pay. Violent attacks on the Ardoyne return parade on successive Twelfths of July saw the Parades Commission impose restrictions on the parade, not the protestors.
What we need is respect, restraint and tolerance from all sides, whether on parade, spectating or protesting.
You may not understand why someone wants to parade lawfully, peacefully and respectfully, but that is no reason not to respect and tolerate their right to do so. Before we can try to share the future, perhaps we need to learn how to share a few short stretches of road once or twice a year.
l Tom Elliott is an MLA for Fermanagh & South Tyrone and is the UUP spokesperson for justice and the environment.