Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community

  Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LOCC) was formed by local residents at a public meeting called in the immediate aftermath of the murder by the Loyalist UFF of five people in Sean Graham's Bookmakers in February 1992. As well as wishing to offer practical help to the bereaved and injured, residents were concerned that the onset of the Loyalist marching season would bring further hurt to those who were already suffering grievously. This concern proved to be very well founded. Since 1992, LOCC has campaigned for the re-routing of sectarian and offensive parades away from the Lower Ormeau Road area. LOCC is not affiliated to any political party and does not have any wider political agenda.

  Lower Ormeau Concerned Community has supported the concept of an independent parades commission since the publication of the North Report in 1997. In the years since the creation of the Parades Commission, we have had occasion to criticise the way the Commission has operated. However, our position remains that there are difficult issues around parades in the North of Ireland and there is a need for formal mechanisms to resolve these issues. A parades commission, operating in an independent and transparent way, according to clear and measurable rules and policies, can play a valuable role in resolving disputed parades.

  Our approach to the Parades Commission is different to that of the Loyal Orders and Unionist politicians in general. We want to see the Parades Commission freed from political interference and operating in the independent way envisaged by the North Report. The Loyal Orders and the Unionist politicians who support them want to destroy the Commission so that they can return to the days of the Stormont regime when the Loyal Orders enjoyed a virtually unfettered right to march. For them, the "right to march" applies only to Unionists. We know this from the public statements of Unionist politicians in relation to Nationalist and republican parades. We also know it from comments made directly to us by representatives of the Apprentice Boys among others, who have acknowledged that they would not accept Nationalist parades through unionist areas.

  We also have a different perspective to the Loyal Orders on the nature of the parades problem. The Loyal Orders like to portray the Parades Commission (and the residents groups) as the source of the problem. In fact, Loyal Order parades have caused disturbance, conflict and deaths for two hundred years and individual and blanket bans have been imposed on Loyal Order parades on many occasions during that time.

  A parades commission as recommended by the North Report represented an attempt to deal with the problems caused by parades. Notwithstanding a number of differences which we have had with the Parades Commission since 1997, it remains our view that the Parades Commission has the potential to make a significant contribution to resolving the parades issue.

  We do, however, have a concern that the Parades Commission has drifted away considerably from the model set out in the North Report.

  Part of the blame for this lies with the Loyal Orders, which have sought from the start to put the Parades Commission on the defensive with a view to either destroying it or effectively neutering it. They have been quite successful in that goal. They have created an attitude within the Parades Commission and the British Government that the Loyal Orders must be placated wherever possible to encourage "acceptance" of the Parades Commission by the Loyal Orders.

  As a result of this attitude, we have seen the Parades Commission move further and further away from the idea of an independent and fair body, operating in an open and transparent way and making decisions based on clear and quantifiable criteria, as envisaged within the North Report.

  Our starting point would therefore be that the best way to enhance the effectiveness of the Parades Commission is for the Commission to operate in a way which is demonstrably fair and consistent. A group or individual may not like a decision, but at least the process of decision making is clear and understandable.

  We have not had this type of approach to date. Instead we have too often seen the Parades Commission apply a limited set of the original criteria in an inconsistent way and this has been the source of the lack of acceptance which we have today, not just within the Loyal Orders but among residents of areas affected by parades and also among the wider Nationalist community.

  The problem has been compounded by the clear political interference of the British Government and the NIO review referred to in this inquiry's terms of reference is seen by us as part of that ongoing political interference.

  Lower Ormeau Concerned Community has criticised the NIO review and other reviews of the Parades Commission which have had the effect of moving the decision-making process of the Commission further and further away from the model set out by North. The scrapping of the obligation on the Commission to deliver a preliminary view on contentious parades was a mistake which has encouraged the Loyal Orders to engage in last minute PR stunts rather than seriously addressing clearly defined problems associated with their parades.

  The replacement of the requirement on parade organisers to "reach agreement" with residents by the stipulation that the organisers should "take whatever steps are reasonable to meet residents' concerns" has put in place an entirely subjective criteria which is being and will be interpreted very narrowly and opportunistically by the Loyal Orders.

  The Commission continues to give undue weight to the "tradition" of parading. We believe that tradition is a fundamentally wrong principle on which to base decisions in relation to parades. It ignores the fact that marching traditions were built up primarily during the Stormont and direct rule eras, when Unionist marches were actively facilitated and Nationalist rights were totally ignored. To lend weight to these traditions is to endorse the discriminatory practices that created those "traditional" marches in the volumes that we have today. It also misses the point that nearly all contentious parades are long-standing and that in fact the long-standing nature of the abuse and provocation associated with those parades has created the situations of contention and confrontation in the first place. As Brid Rodgers of the SDLP said "So-called traditional routes are the product of sectarian coat-trailing of previous generations. They are based on an inequality of power between the two communities, exercised irresponsibly and with total disregard for the existence, let alone the rights, of nationalists".

  The Commission does not give any parallel weight to traditions of opposition to parades. There is documentary evidence of opposition to parades on the Lower Ormeau Road as far back as the 1970s. If weight is to be given to parading traditions, then why not also give weight to traditions of opposition to parades?

  Mediation and conflict resolution initiatives undertaken by or sponsored by the Parades Commission can only succeed if the credibility of the Commission is restored. We have seen the Parades Commission use dialogue between ourselves and the Apprentice Boys as the defining criteria to be applied in relation to the 14 August 1999 parade and to behave as if dialogue represented the solution to the problem rather than merely a means of looking for areas of possible agreement.

  The Commission's attitude to the 14 August 1999 parade seemed to be that the very act of meeting with LOCC meant that the Apprentice Boys parade must go ahead and that the failure to reach agreement also meant that the parade must go ahead. This put the residents in a no-win situation. Even genuine dialogue can often fail to bridge a gap between two parties and one side should not suffer automatic punishment for that failure. The "dialogue" leading up to the 14 August 1999 parade—as far as the Apprentice Boys were concerned—consisted of a restatement by them of their absolute intention to parade and their reasons for doing so.

  The Commission needs to accept that in certain well-defined situations it is unreasonable for the Loyal Orders to insist on parading in a given area and that it is legitimate for the residents to remain unconvinced even after exploring the various issues with the Loyal Orders.

  The prospects for local agreement have been damaged by the Parades Commission's attitude to dialogue, with residents convinced that the Loyal Orders will go through the motions of dialogue in order to sway the Commission rather than trying to seriously understand and resolve the problems around parades. Residents believe that dialogue will be used against them by the Commission.

  The type of "legislative dialogue" which the Apprentice Boys have engaged in has been criticised by a number of experts in conflict resolution And mediation that we have talked to. If the Parades Commission takes the same shallow approach to mediation as it has taken to discussions between the Loyal Orders and residents then any process of mediation is bound to fail. Furthermore, longer term prospects for mediation or conflict resolution will be damaged.

  It is vitally important that steps are taken immediately to restore the credibility of the Parades Commission. As we have said, this can only be done by creating confidence that the Commission is capable of operating in an independent, transparent and consistent manner.

October 2000

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