The current parades-related legislation is cumbersome and deeply irritating to many in Northern Ireland. Every procession with the sole exception of the Salvation Army must go through the process of filling out an 11/1 form and seeking an adjudication from the Parades Commission. That means not only Republican and Loyalist marches, but entirely non-contentious GAA and British Legion parades, gay pride parades and, yes, even the Boy Scouts.
Doubtless, the process could do with a significant degree of streamlining. OFMdFM’s attempt to produce something acceptable to both the DUP and Sinn Féin produced something even more bureaucratic and deeply restrictive, which outraged civil society. The proposals were rapidly ‘unagreed’ by the DUP when the Loyal Orders came out against.
Nobody likes the current arrangement, but the alternative is that we return to the mid-1990s scenario of the police making decisions on whether or not a parade should proceed based solely on public order grounds. That, as we all remember, politicised the police against their will, and led to a situation where the party to any dispute who could summon the greatest degree of disruption or violence won. It must obvious to all that any return to the status quo ante is a disaster for everyone, and in particular a disaster for anyone who believes that ensuring the police are impartial and seen to be impartial is a necessary criterion for peace and order in Northern Ireland.
It must be obvious to anyone… except perhaps the senior command of the PSNI. The first big mistake the force made on this score was on Black Saturday, 25 August, last year. The Grand Master of the Royal Black Preceptory in Belfast, William Mawhinney tore up the Parades Commission determination that no music should be played by bands on the stretch of Donegall Street passing St. Patrick’s Church. Bands on the parade took the hint and, encouraged by stewards, broke the law. The Young Conway Volunteers band, broke a determination that they should not parade on that part of the route after their antics on The Twelfth. The police chose not to intervene, citing public order concerns. Those concerns may have been real but they established a dangerous precedent. As far as I am aware, no follow-up charges have been made to incidents on Black Saturday despite ample video evidence (I stand open to correction).
Since Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag according to the rules of Her Majesty the Queen, parts of Northern Ireland have been intermittently paralysed by loyalist protests, some taking the form of parades, some simply blocking roads in the form of a static picket. Without the necessary authorisation, which none of them has so much as applied for, these are all illegal. The police, again citing public order grounds, have not only tolerated these but actively facilitated them. The risk inherent in returning to an ad hoc system of parades management was amply demonstrated on 13 January, when hand-to-hand sectarian fighting erupted on the Albertbridge Road. I’m not in a position to play the blame game as I wasn’t there, but I find myself asking how the hell a parade managed to get along a route universally recognised as combustible for decades.
The current legislative framework surrounding parades, quite rightly, cites the right to freedom of assembly as the cornerstone of its decision-making process. The organisers of the flags protests have been – quite intentionally – causing disruption well beyond that needed to exercise the fundamental human right to freedom of assembly. For example, 400 or so flag protestors require that Donegall Square be closed for over an hour during prime Saturday afternoon retail hours. The following day, about twice that number of peace demonstrators could be accommodated on the City Hall pavement without the slightest disruption to traffic. Disruption is the explicitly stated purpose of most of the marches and all of the roadblocks.
The police cite overstretched resources as a reason for facilitating the protests and roadblocks. I can understand that – I’m not the one out on a freezing night having some over-testosteroned teenager try to use a flagpole as a halberd against me. There seems, however, to have been insufficient thought put into how overstretched police resources might be when the marching season arrives, if the police continue to allow themselves to be sucked into a game of permitting Loyalist parades due to threat of force majeure. It’s going to be pretty hard for the TSG to clear protestors off roads in Ardoyne or Rasharkin when the UVF is allowed to paralyse chunks of Greater Belfast for weeks.
The police will probably defend themselves from this sort of point by saying that they have not had sufficient political support from Unionist politicians (Basil McCrea excepted) to enforce the law. They may well be right. Unionist politicians also need to do some joined-up thinking as to where a return to force majeure as the grounds for permitting or restricting parades might lead.
Are the police slowly turning the corner this week? Monday night’s protestors on the Waterside were not going to be allowed to interfere with the Derry-Londonderry City of Culture extravaganza. One hopes that residents of inner city East Belfast – and Jim “this is not down to a flag” Wilson does not speak for all of them – will have their right to freedom of movement as respected as the prominenti of the North West. The shutting down of Facebook pages which encourage illegal protests – something that took about 24 hours in England in summer 2011 but has taken 7 weeks over here – may also mark a turning point. Sadly, the many overt threats made on social media seem unlikely to result in charges.
Being Chief Constable of the PSNI is about as tough a job as gets in policing. It inevitably involves difficult decisions around issues of deep inter-communal tension where political support is lacking. Matt Baggott knew that before he took the job. I have every sympathy with the invidious position he finds himself in, but he has to back himself out of this cul-de-sac before the Marching Season kicks off. Or we’re all in trouble.