Paisley and parades…

THE Parades Commission has permitted (with restrictions) a contentious Orange parade past the Ardoyne shaps in north Belfast, the scene of previous violent clashes involving nationalists, loyalists and the police. With rioters’ pictures appearing in the news and Sean Kelly’s arrest, perhaps the PSNI were preparing for events in advance this year. Who knows. But it’s not all doom and gloom, if you glance north-west for a moment, where there’s been an interesting disagreement happening on the unionist side…The Sunday Times had an article at the weekend suggesting that Ian Paisley had attempted to stop Orange Grand Master Robert Saulters issuing a statement strongly criticising those who had taken part in talks involving nationalists in Derry. Paisley’s thoughts seem to be shared by another minister who also used to preach in Ballymena, Rev Joe Fell, where I think Saulters has links as well. But their attention is focused on the north-west right now, not north Antrim.

Is there a divergence of opinion on how to go forward between Orangemen like Saulters and others like Fell and Paisley, who isn’t a member of the Orange Institution? The talks that brokered agreement in Derry were chaired by the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. Is there an emerging practicality, that simply sought a solution while not breaching the letter of the Orange policy forbidding talking directly to residents’ groups? Saulters believes that participation in talks chaired by a third party breaches the spirit of the policy, certainly.

This is the crux. For many years (in some cases), the DUP has participated in councils, TV debates, an Assembly, proxy negotiations, various committees and junkets with Sinn Fein. Just as long as they didn’t have to address them directly – basically not talking to someone who – as the DUP see it – supports the use of terrorism. For a hardline unionist, to speak to republicans was tantamount to making small-talk with the enemy, serving only to legitimise and sanitise their slaughter of loyal Ulster Protestants.

Paisley actually slipped up in the Agriculture Committee once and – probably without thinking – addressed a Sinn Fein member (if you can be bothered searching the Hansard). The mask has slipped elsewhere, although it would be unfair to say who. But all in all, both sides were generally content enough to talk through the chair or speaker or whatever. Progress, of a sort – arms-length enough for the DUP to keep its word about “not talking to terrorists” and thus keep its constituency happy, but with the practicality of a line of communication when obliged to fight their political corner in the company of republicans.

It’s been a far from perfect arrangement, but they muddled through, often badly, occasionally surprisingly. Almost imperceptibly slowly, as the IRA threat has quietened, there has been a softening of the DUP position. When there’s a Sinn Fein interviewee, DUP MPs don’t appear on Hearts & Minds as disembodied heads on a TV screen behind Noel Thompson’s bap any more – they’re now in the same studio, “confronting republicans”, as they say.

Of course, Noel – as chairman and referee – has to be there, so the DUP can maintain the pretense (or if you’re a DUP supporter, “the reality”) of not talking to Sinn Fein.

Baby steps.

But now Saulters seems to be challenging all of that, despite the fact that, according to the News Letter, it “will mean some 3,000 Orangemen from outside Londonderry joining the local lodge in parading through the city centre above the Bogside for the first time in 13 years on July 12”.

For some Orangemen, the prize of a parade on Derry’s walls for the first time in over a decade will have meant the talks were worth it. Others may see it as abandoning a principle. But the growing weariness with those annual disputes that end up with no parade or violence, coupled with the potential of a peaceful march (albeit probably restricted), may prove an incentive elsewhere.

It wasn’t a problem for Robert Saulters to sign Paisley’s election nomination papers on the basis that the DUP had been involved in indirect talks with republicans for years. He knew what he was signing up to. Following the Grand Lodge split from the UUP, the DUP and the Orange Order are cosier than ever, but now that Orangemen are using the DUP’s form of proxy-talking to resolve parade disputes, it would seem somewhat late in the day for Saulters to condemn such talks. By politically endorsing the DUP, had the Grand Master not effectively given a green light to how the party dealt with republicanism? Should he then be surprised when his own organisation does too?

It will be interesting to see what kind of leadership prevails, and where, this summer.

Oh, and Drumcree was banned again. Maybe they should start talking.