Thursday’s joint statement from the DUP, UUP, PUP, TUV and UPRG shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Indeed, it was flagged up almost a week earlier in another joint statement (which was also signed off by the County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast) that said that the parties and organisations “would act collectively on the parading issues in the days and weeks ahead”.
And judging by the speed with which Thursday’s statement appeared – announcing DUP/UUP withdrawal from the talks and adding that there was “no value in continuing contact with a Parades Commission that does not listen and is immune to reason” – it was very clear that it had been prepared in advance. In other words, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that the unionist parties had already decided to pull out of the talks.
So what was the point of attending them in the first place? More important, what is their collective strategy now, the “graduated response” they talk about? Since the primary target of their anger seems to be the Parades Commission then it follows that the “graduated response” must be directed at the removal or reform of the commission.
Yet they know that that cannot be delivered without the approval of Sinn Fein and a nod from the British and Irish governments. So at some point the DUP and UUP will have to return to another room with Sinn Fein and try and thrash this out again.
Surely it would have made more sense, then, for both parties to have stayed put on Thursday and focused attention on their concerns? They could have made a pitch for the chief constable to come along and also asked for an input from Anne Henderson, chair of the Parades Commission.
But no, they played the usual card and opted for an immediate stunt and the rather vague, unspecified promise of “political action in tandem with peaceful and lawful protests”.
For instance, if the leaders of the unionist community don’t think that it’s worth “continuing contact” with the Parades Commission, do they think that the bands and lodges should bother asking permission for parades? Let’s face it, the commission can carry on perfectly well without having to meet Robinson, Nesbitt, Allister and Hutchinson: it won’t make a button of difference to how they do their business and reach their determinations. So the decision not to meet them is hardly a serious threat, is it?
Similarly, what sort of pressure do they apply that would make the position and existence of the present commission untenable? What’s the likelihood of the Secretary of State bowing to their complaints and dismissing and then replacing the members of it?
That said, I do have an issue with a commission chair who seems very reluctant to talk to the media and who deploys a PR firm to respond to questions. Hers is a very public, very political, very contentious role and she should not be afforded the luxury of what appears to be the Greta Garbo (“I want to be alone”) approach to her position.
I remember the United Ulster Unionist Coalition’s destruction of Sunningdale, yet they had no coherent strategy for replacing it with anything better. I remember the “graduated response” strategy to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, yet it wasn’t all that long before the unionist parties were back at the negotiating table again. Last year’s Unionist Forum (“the most significant unionist gathering in half a century”) didn’t prevent the parties gutting each other during the last two elections.
And now here we are again with yet another version of a pan-unionist front and very little evidence that there is actually a coherent, credible, thought-through strategy for delivering anything.
For good measure, the ink had barely dried on the joint statement before the DUP and TUV were having a pop at Mike Nesbitt over his suggestion (in an interview with me) that there should be more statues to republicanism in and around Stormont!
What are the chances of this latest unionist unity vehicle being any better than most that have preceded it? Well, if it’s about dumping the Parades Commission and replacing it with something acceptable to unionism and Orangeism then the chances are non-existent. They are non-existent because this is something that is not within the gift of the unionist parties to deliver: and both the DUP and UUP know this, which is why they have had to take part in all-party talks about the issue on three occasions since 2009.
Any promises to the contrary are empty: what Mary Poppins describes as “pie crust promises – easily made and easily broken”. I worry when the statement urges ‘all those who are justifiably angry and frustrated to remain peaceful and calm ... and channel their activities into the graduated response outlined by the combined leadership of unionism’.
I worry because my suspicion is that the lack of a policy capable of delivering will, in fact, lead to that anger eventually being directed at the Parades Commission, the PSNI and elements of that unionist leadership.
The most important thing to be done at this point (and it really is too important to be left on the long finger) is for the signatories of the joint statement to set out an easily understood gameplan: what they want, how they plan to secure it and how long it may take to deliver. The people they hope to influence must not be misinformed, misled, fed on rumour and manipulated by others – because that’s precisely how previous unity vehicles dissolved into snarling chaos.
One thing is certain, though: if this latest attempt to deliver a collective strategy falls apart then it will be followed by further divisions within party political unionism and an increase in the numbers of non-voting unionists. So let’s hope that “graduated response” means something more substantial than making it up as they go along, then turning on each other at the first sign of trouble.