The Orange Order has challenged the Secretary of State to give her alternative to the panel of inquiry into parading she agreed - and then vetoed - to resolve parading tensions in Belfast.
In an open letter in Saturday’s News Letter Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, begins his address to Theresa Villiers by highlighting how the order were informed in December that Ms Villiers was withdrawing the offer – by Martin McGuinness.
In the order’s first substantive response to the development, Mr Stevenson wrote: “You, as Secretary of State, who had previously publicly stated you would be forming such a panel, confirmed this, although did not see fit to share your decision with any of the Unionist groupings who had called for an independent inquiry into the situation.”
The order also used the letter to challenge suggestions that unionism was divided in its support for the ill-fated panel of inquiry into tensions at Ardoyne and Twaddell, stating that all elected unionist parties and all but one Orange lodge supported the scheme.
“You tried to justify your actions by stating there was ‘insufficient support on the ground’ for such a panel and quoted one local lodge as not being in favour of it” but in fact, he said, she had been briefed that every Unionist party backed the panel.
He added: “One constituent element of the Unionist collective, the UPRG were opposed to the panel, a position recognised by the wider group, and a local lodge had also expressed a similar opinion through a press statement” and then asked what “really” changed her mind.
The Orange leader claimed the “only plausible explanation for the U-turn is that it resulted from a side deal with republicans”.
Mr Stevenson said unionist leaders are all still fully committed to seeing the parades issue resolved, and he emphasised that parading is her responsibility as a devolved matter.
He said: “As you personally took the decision to kill off this initiative – you must now outline your proposed way forward as a matter of urgency.”
The Northern Ireland Office issued a statement last night, saying “there were no side deals during the Stormont House talks, linked to this issue or any other.”
It added that “effective mediation cannot take place without meaningful engagement from both sides. It became apparent that there was insufficient support for the panel among some of those most closely involved in the dispute...
“The Secretary of State stands ready to assist the local political parties, the loyal orders and the local residents any way she can. And she calls on all parties to reflect carefully, to think about how this dispute can be resolved, and then to commit to finding that solution with open minds, goodwill, and urgency.”