By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
The Good Friday Agreement was 15 years old last Friday or will be next Wednesday depending whether you go by the day, Good Friday, or the date, April 10. Everyone is talking about how far short it has fallen of the hopes of the people who voted for it in 1998.
The Parades Commission is also 15 years old but no-one is talking about their disappointment with its uselessness. In 1998 you couldn’t have found many people who had much hope that it could or would resolve the 200-year-old problem of Protestant supremacist parades. That prognosis has proved correct.
The provisions in the Good Friday Agreement to which all the parties (except the DUP) signed up include “the right to freedom from sectarian harassment”. If regular Orange and Apprentice Boys parades through districts 90 to 100 percent Catholic aren’t sectarian harassment then the British National Party is in line for a lottery grant to help its community relations policy in Britain.
We now have reached an extraordinary pass. As presently constituted the Parades Commission is entirely unrepresentative of the nationalist community or indeed of the Catholic community - that is, those affected by Orange bigotry and for whom the Parades Commission was created to protect from sectarian displays. Ah, you might say, it is also unrepresentative of the Protestant community or indeed the Orange community if there were such a thing but since there are fewer than 25,000 Orangemen in the known universe they hardly qualify as a community. One former senior Orange figure sits on the commission but that doesn’t matter. When Orangemen were asked about his appointment in 2010 they replied:”We do not engage with the Parades Commission so it is irrelevant who is on it.”
It’s not only members of what are laughably known as ‘loyal orders’ who reject the Parades Commission.
The leader of the DUP and occasional first minister last year added his name to a list of almost all elected unionists in Belfast objecting to the Parades Commission’s determinations.
Repeatedly Orange and Apprentice Boys marchers notify the Parades Commission of a march and then they and their bands proceed to do what they like.
The Parades Commission does nothing, never has. Far from it, the commission rewards the miscreant marchers and bandsmen by granting them leave to misbehave again.
On the other hand nationalist communities - who are the people whose lives are disrupted by road checks, road closures and police barricades and who are routinely insulted by provocative bandsmen - go along to the Parades Commission, make representations, abide by determinations and are taken for eejits by the invading marchers and bands.
It’s an intolerable set of circumstances.
If the weak-kneed Parades Commission had any connection with the wider society in the north it would have taken radical steps ages ago to remove the more egregious insults to decency they regularly endorse. For example, there is absolutely no need for a handful of Apprentice Boys to march down Clifton Street in Belfast to get on a bus at the old Co-op building necessitating the closure of Clifton Street and the Antrim and Crumlin Roads. There are two obvious alternatives. They could get the bus at Denmark Street or if they want to march, march down the Shankill and get the bus at North Street. Simple.
There’s no argument that they have to do it because they always did it. That would make cannibalism OK.
It’s long past time for the Parades Commission to have the guts to say that the demography of the north has changed and that so-called traditional routes are no longer relevant in the 21st century. The commission might even have the nerve to say that it would be a good idea for Orange marches to begin marching in 90 to 100 per cent Protestant districts which have never seen an Orange march because the marchers are too busy marching through Catholic districts. As it is, the Parades Commission is failing the people it was established to protect. It acts like a jellyfish, pushed in the direction of the strongest tide and randomly stinging innocent people. At the very least, if the courts and even the director of public prosecutions can give reasons for their actions, then it’s an unacceptable sign of weakness that the Parades Commission remains silent.