Unionists plan action over parades

W.D.M. Daryl Hewitt
W.D.M. Daryl Hewitt

Governance in Northern Ireland is set to be impacted by the unionist and loyalist reaction to a controversial decision to limit an Orange Order parade in Belfast, a senior member of the protestant loyal order has warned.

Grand Secretary of the Orange institution Drew Nelson said there was a realisation by pro-Union politicians that a “knee-jerk” reaction was not enough and the response should last longer than just the duration of the annual marching season.

Senior unionists are considering the next phase of a pledged “graduated response” to the Parades Commission determination banning the north Belfast parade from passing the nationalist Ardoyne neighbourhood on July 12 - the most significant day in the parading season.

The crisis has placed a question mark on the future viability of the power-sharing administration at Stormont, with Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson having gone as far as to state that the institutions are “under threat”.

Political rivals have been scathing over the unionist reaction, accusing them of failing to show leadership and placing peace process gains in jeopardy because they did not get their own way on a parade.

A coalition of five unionist and loyalist political parties have met with Orange leaders to discuss their plans and the loyal order has given its full backing to the strategy.

At an Orange event in Portadown today, where members have been embroiled in a long running dispute over restrictions on a parade passing up the nationalist Garvaghy Road, Mr Nelson said: “We are now in a new situation where there is a realisation throughout the Loyal Orders and unionist political leadership that a knee-jerk reaction over the parading season is not enough.

“I therefore expect that the unionist and loyalist family’s reaction will continue well after the parading season has finished and will spread into the sphere of politics and governance.”

Senior Orangemen from across the region will meet during the week to further discuss their response to the crisis.

Mr Nelson, who highlighted other parades that continue to be restricted, accused nationalist and republican political leaders of “merely pay lip service to the concept of shared space and a shared society”.

“Indeed, when the Loyal Orders put that aspiration of shared space to the test, we are in fact demonised by nationalist and republican leaders and sent to the ‘naughty corner’ by the inept Parades Commission,” he said.

But he stressed to supporters that any protest action had to be peaceful.

“Our traditions are dear to us and are only undermined by violence,” he said.

When the commission’s decision was announced on Thursday the two largest pro-Union parties - the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists - walked out of a political talks initiative at Stormont to highlight their anger and on Friday ministers from both parties pulled out of planned cross border meetings in Dublin with counterparts in the Irish government.

The DUP and UUP have joined forces with smaller unionist and loyalist parties in the region, including two with links to paramilitary groups, to present a united front in regard to the parading dispute.

The Government-appointed commission cited the potential for public disorder and negative impact on community relations among its reasons for preventing the contentious evening parade proceeding along north Belfast’s Crumlin Road, which is adjacent to the Ardoyne.

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 insisted the 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.

As it did last year, the 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 DUP and UUP have combined over the issue with the Traditional Unionist Voice 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).

The ill fated political talks at Parliament Buildings in Belfast between the five parties in the executive collapsed on Thursday on only their second day.

They were established by Mr Robinson and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness 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.

Unionists were clearly preparing themselves for the course of action yesterday, as the lengthy statement outlining their intentions was circulated minutes after the commission ruling was issued.