Parades: A question of morals and incentives….

Much has been written about events around parading over the past number of weeks, in the wake of the incident at St. Patrick’s church, the Black Saturday and the recent rioting and serious public disorder on the streets of north Belfast.

Disputes about the line between civil disobedience as a form of public protest and flagrant law breaking have formed an integral part of this discussion, as question marks arise over the powers and regulatory functions of the Parades Commission.

Brian Feeney, in today’s Irish News interprets the failure to pursue prosecutions as fatally undermining the integrity of the Parades Commission:

“Loyalists have also learned from Black Saturday that the bigger your parade the more you can get away with- an extremely dangerous lesson.”

Alex Kane takes a different view, whilst criticising unionists for engaging in whingeing rather than prosecuting their case against the PC more thoughtfully, he notes the underlying politics behind creating incentives to amplify parade objections:

“There is very clear evidence that the Parades Commission has been willing to ‘recognise’ and pay heed to the views of groups which appear to have an agenda far beyond the ‘concerns’ of the residents they claim to represent….”

Yet, he also notes the responsibility of the loyal orders and unionist leaders as arising from the fundamental problems with their current approach:

“Putting, it more bluntly, they can hardly complain about others breaking the law when they refuse to condemn those who ignore determinations of the Parades Commission”.

Missing in all of this debate is a concrete discussion of the relationship between moral hazard, i.e. the incentives created by awarding bad behaviour and the seductiveness of slipping into a spiral of warped moral relatvism, i.e. ‘they get away with everything, so we want to get away with it too’.

This is a dangerous descent which must be checked and strategically. The loyal orders and unionist parties addressed only the critique in their open letter, not the solution.

One of the main problems, aside from the “quality control” issue regarding the strategic intentions of protestors, is the lack of a clearly defined pyramid of sanctions, matching wrongdoing of both protestors and parade participants, with the severity of the sanction taken.

John Braithwaite and Ian Ayres designed “responsive regulation”, an ethos that regulatory sanctions get tougher the more regulations are flouted, ensuring that the development of a working relationship between the regulator and regulated takes precedence, one which minimises conflict on the basis of a relationship with clear expectations, transparent rules and guidelines.

This is consistent with the statutory duties of the PC to develop greater understanding around public processions and to facilitate mediation, ensuring the ‘nuclear option’ only comes into play when bad faith can be traced at points in the pyramid.

The YCV band would have been investigated and any sanctions confined to that specific band, with any subsequent misbehaviour by them or others then moving up the chain to punish parade organisers, for example.

Likewise, those engaging in violence and attempted murder at Ardoyne would not achieve the removal of a a single drum beat on Derry Day morning by creating “local community tension”. 

A regulatory form which removes the regulator from accusations of escalation is required, reflecting the importance of how a regulator’s response to behaviour shapes the incentives of those who interact with it.

There is no panacea on parading disputes, but moving the debate in this direction would at least avoid the criticism that the Commission simply responds to those making the most ‘noise’ or worse, to appease violence such as that seen at Ardoyne and being aped by loyalists in Belfast this week.

The lesson from the Dungiven parade stop is that currently, the volume of complaint appears to be given more weight than the intrinsic wrongs of the acts themselves. We need dialogue on how to make the PC operate more consistently, coherently and impartially.

The lesson for unionists appears to be that structure and incentives matter. They have a point with their critique of the PC, but they could more profitably focus on helping to shape the future operation of the Commission and its failure to develop a coherent regulatory philosophy.

Focusing on the body itself distracts from the importance of the operational principles for regulating parades and the case to be made for responsible exercise of freedoms. Exercising clear moral leadership on these fronts would expose the excuses of those resorting to violence to have their voice heard as just that, excuses. Anything else remains open to the challenge of whistling in the wind.