The Government has pledged to consider a demand from unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland to set up a commission of inquiry into a parading dispute that has resulted in the restriction of a contentious Orange Order parade in Belfast.
The undertaking from Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers came after pro-Union political leaders in the Province warned that their co-operation in various levels of governance would be affected if such a probe was not ordered.
Senior Orangemen have also called for a series of peaceful protests on Saturday - the most significant day of the loyal order marching calendar - to demonstrate their anger at the decision to prevent the controversial parade passing a nationalist area.
Ms Villiers said: “The Government will want to look carefully at the proposal put forward by unionist leaders this morning.
“We have always made clear our willingness to consider all practical options to resolve the situation in North Belfast. I welcome the efforts being made to try to find a way forward. I am happy to meet unionist leaders to discuss their proposal as soon as possible.”
The Government-appointed commission, which adjudicates on contentious marches, cited the potential for public disorder and negative impact on community relations among its reasons for preventing Saturday’s evening parade by Orangemen proceeding along north Belfast’s Crumlin Road, which is adjacent to the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood.
Politicians and senior Orangemen have pledged a “graduated response” to the commission’s decision.
The vaguely termed commitment was first made last week, when the region’s two main unionist parties - the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists - walked out of political talks at Stormont to highlight their anger at the commission’s decision, but until today there had been little by way of explanation as to what it would entail.
Some meat was put on the bones this morning at an event in east Belfast hosted by the Orange Order and attended by representatives of a number of unionist and loyalist parties, including two with links to paramilitary groups, which have joined forces to present a united front on the parading dispute.
As well as the planned protest marches, at each main Twelfth event across Northern Ireland on Saturday Orangemen have been asked to pause for a period of six minutes - the time the Order claims it would take members to walk the disputed stretch of the Crumlin Road.
The crisis has placed a question mark on the future viability of the power-sharing administration at Stormont.
Last week Mr Robinson went so far as to state that the institutions were “under threat” and today, when asked if they were safe, he did not directly answer the question.
But he did vow: “This is not a one day or a one week battle, this is a long campaign.”
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he supported devolution but added: “It has to be based on principle and the principle is fairness and we are not seeing that in the issue which we are discussing today.”
At this morning’s event at Ballymacarrett Orange Hall, the political leaders and senior Orangemen all signed a pledge asserting that their campaign will be lawful and peaceful.
Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable George Hamilton said he was “heartened” by the call for any activity to be peaceful.
“What we have got here is some leadership from unionists and the Orange institutions, and that is a good thing,” he said.
“It is positive that those people in public life, with civic and political responsibility, channel protest in a way that ensures that any activity is within the law.”
But political rivals have been scathing over the unionist stance in regard to the Ardoyne dispute, accusing them of failing to show leadership, being led by the nose by the Orange Order, and placing peace process gains in jeopardy because they did not get their own way on a parade.
Sinn Fein Assembly member Gerry Kelly insisted nothing should be done to help unionists undermine the Parades Commission.
“Unionists are asking for a commission of inquiry simply because they didn’t get their own way,” he said.
“Neither unionists or the British secretary of state should do anything to undermine it.”
While both loyalists and republicans have engaged in serious disorder linked to the parade in recent years, the DUP, UUP and other unionist and loyalist representatives have insisted the Parades Commission had given in to the threat of republican violence.
In recent years when the Orange Order parade was given permission to pass the Ardoyne, republicans rioted.
When it was banned last year, loyalists rioted in the nearby unionist community in Woodvale.
Loyalists have manned a protest camp at the volatile community interface ever since, requiring a policing operation costing around £10 million.
The DUP and UUP have combined over the issue with the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG). The PUP has links to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) while the UPRG would have a similar political advisory role in respect of the outlawed Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
Mr Robinson spoke on behalf of the coalition today.
“The combined unionist parties call upon the Secretary of State to establish a time-bound commission of inquiry with the necessary powers and resources to examine the Crumlin Road parades impasse and the wider issues it represents,” he said.
The DUP leader added: “In addition the parties are agreed that at every level - council, Assembly, Westminster and Europe - the denial of cultural expression resulting from republican violence and threats of violence will have consequences determining how our members at each of these levels of government will participate.
“We intend to seek an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State. The response of the Secretary of State to the positive proposal of this commission of inquiry will dictate the nature and timing of those actions.”
As it did last year, the Parades Commission has given permission, with restrictions, for Orangemen to parade down the disputed section of the Crumlin Road on the morning of July 12.
It is the evening parade, when Orangemen return from traditional Twelfth commemorations elsewhere in Belfast, that has been prohibited from passing along the road.
The ill-fated political talks at Parliament Buildings in Belfast between the five parties in the Stormont executive collapsed last Thursday on only their second day.
They were established in an effort to break the impasse on disputes over parades, flags and the past. One of the issues being debated was a potential replacement for the controversial Parades Commission.
At today’s event, Orange Order Grand Master Edward Stevenson said: “The time has come for all unionists to stand up and be counted.”
Mr Stevenson said throwing “one stone” would undermine the Orange cause.
“If your view of protest is violence or if you seek to cause agitation within Unionism, please stay away from our protests,” he said.
The Grand Master said the protest parades on the Twelfth evening would not be held in “contentious areas”.
Both Mr Nesbitt and Mr Robinson repeatedly urged anyone participating in Saturday’s event to stay within the law.
The DUP leader insisted the collective unionist and loyalist political response to the dispute had “enhanced” the chances of delivering a peaceful Twelfth.
He claimed wider political talks in Northern Ireland to resolve outstanding peace process issues on parades, flags and the past would only stand a chance of success if non-unionist parties started to demonstrate respect for other cultures.
“It will be a real step forward when we go forward on the basis of how can we have parades, not whether we can have parades,” he said.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell claimed the unionist approach to the issue would only serve to create “uncertainty, unease and fear”.
“To establish a commission of inquiry would send mixed signals and serve to undermine the Parades Commission,” he said.
“The SDLP have not always agreed with Parades Commission determinations but we have accepted them as the independent arbitrators that our communities so desperately need.
“All of these issues around parading, flags and identity and how to deal with the past need to be resolved. Unionists are putting it off by going alone. The result of all of this will create doubt about our democratic institutions. This is not good politics.”