The Crumlin Road parade dispute has been resolved, and central to the resolution was a decision by mainstream republicans to push their own constituency to the limit at a time when not doing anything would have provided them, at face value, with precisely the same outcome that they have achieved.
On yesterday’s BBC1 Sunday Politics, I prefaced my comments with the observation that GARC spokesman were right to state that the return parade was essentially a thing of the past and, without this intervention, would never have happened.
There are many reasons for that.
The antics of loyalists, acting with unionist politicians as cheerleaders, has ensured that the Orange Order were in a hole they appeared incapable of finding a way out of on their own.
The initial violence around the parade, the criminally reckless decision to conceive of the Twaddell Camp, siting it at the interface, organizing nightly parades, erecting flags right up to the place where the two communities meet all contributed to the poisoning of relationships, further cementing the ad hoc deal that had evolved of permitting a series of morning parades but the end of evening return parades. This deal had the added incentive of seeming to be workable and enforceable in a way that the loyalist demand to march for the second time in a given day past the same Catholic-owned homes clearly was not. And that’s before we factor in that a young girl almost lost her life on the 12th July last year in a pending court case that will see a local Orange Order figure facing serious charges.
The ill-conceived Graduated Response strategy from political unionism from July 2014 was a reckless stunt, an example of the shockingly poor leadership too often provided from unionist politicians when faced with such grassroots disputes.
In the face of all of that, this was an extraordinarily generous offer from CARA, the Sinn Fein supported residents’ group, an unprecedented example of a protagonist party to a bitter local dispute deciding to help their embittered foe out of a hole.
And, let’s be very clear about the deal that has been agreed.
In return for the one and done parade facilitated on Saturday morning, a series of morning parades by loyalists will not be opposed throughout the year in return for the decisive ending of all evening return parades. Securing a cast iron guarantee (the ‘moratorium’) from loyalist organisations that none will even seek to apply for return parades was required to empower CARA and mainstream republicans to make the difficult case to facilitate the one-off return parade.
Whilst some within the Loyal Orders appear incapable of learning the harsh Twaddell lesson, there have been calls from elsewhere for unionist politicians to step up to the plate and provide the necessary leadership to guide the Orange Order and ensure they begin learning from their experiences. In Saturday’s Irish News, Newton Emerson noted how this parade deal owed “nothing to mainstream unionist leadership” in contrast to how Sinn Fein had “stood up to dissidents.”
Alas, listening to Deputy Grand Master Spencer Beattie return the needle to the start of the Orange song illustrates just why the failure of unionist politicians to take the hard decisions and make the unpopular stand left loyalism metaphorically lost in that Twaddell caravan for the past three years. That republicans decided to reach out the hand to help them out of their mess is not lost on anyone, and nor should be how difficult and awkward that decision has and will continue to be for those who supported that deal.
The CARA offer was about taking the moral high ground, giving the Orangemen and unionists a way out. It has succeeded in cementing an ad hoc deal which not only ends the local parading dispute but, crucially, also denies dissident republicans an annual occasion in which they can agitate for support over a legitimate grievance from the prominent platform they had developed locally.
The heckling of senior Sinn Fein figures by those associated with GARC was, perhaps, to be expected, but the decision to target Fr Gary Donegan for his public endorsement of this deal was a significant mistake by those opposed to the deal. Fr Gary walked with the young girls of Holy Cross Girls’ school and their parents when they faced the nightmare of the bitter school blockade in 2001 (as he recalled in this BBC interview today), and he has worked passionately in the local community for parishioners throughout his time in the area, developing a well-earned reputation as a moral leader and guide for people within and beyond Ardoyne, of all faiths and none.
Ironically, facing the now vacant caravan site on the Woodvale Road at the Twaddell roundabout is the Houben Centre, the realization of a dream by the Passionists of Holy Cross, of which Fr Gary is a member, to build a community hub which can reach beyond the interface and bring together the divided working-class peoples of this part of north Belfast.
When the building was designed, it was decided to site an entrance on the loyalist side of the divide at the Woodvale Road as well as the nationalist side in order to encourage the perception that it could belong to all communities. The building is home to the R City Coffee restaurant, a joint social enterprise by young adults from the Hammer YC in the lower Shankill and Ardoyne YC, and many of these same young adults have been involved in the Belfast 2 Blanco project, travelling together to the South African township to carry out charity work.
Resolving the parading dispute in a manner that has allowed space for healing and reconciliation should only be the beginning, and the work of the new forum to be established should focus on cultivating existing and forging new partnerships and relationships across what has been the most sensitive sectarian interface in the north of Ireland.
On this occasion, fortune appears to have favoured the brave.