Its at least encouraging that theyre still talking and expect to keep talking beyond the weekend. Although the pressure is on, nobody ought to expect quick results. I assume that the shape of the talks is different from the old nothing is agreed until everything is agreed formula adopted for the GFA and St Andrews. The issues are more focused on the points of deadlock. Surely its obvious the parties should leave parades aside for another day when J&P is up and running? When he last took a hard line on the record Peter Robinson said only five are really controversial. Surely confidence is built by Sinn Fein continuing to demonstrate their support for policing? Who can deny theyve made a good start? If only it were as simple as that. If the Ashdown principle of confronting local democracy with parades decisions is adopted, unionists fear that green councils in the west will want to ban them until theyre reduced to innocuous Orangefests, while in the east, Sinn Fein proxies or dissidents will carry on stirring up opposition to them in the east. Under Ashdown rules, once a council takes a negative view, mediation is immediately at a disadvantage and faces an uphill and probably lengthy struggle to reverse it. The balance of advantage lies with a ban. Referring the dispute up, do we really believe that FMDFM could cope with a sectarian deadlock in the present atmosphere?
It seems obvious to me that the parties are not ready for Ashdown. The past ten years have been too much about firefighting case by case, with the initiative lying in the streets. For the time being, better to leave adjudication to a quango headed up by one of the great and good which can absorb brickbats without doing serious community damage. Look at the records of containment at Garvaghy Road and Ormeau Road. North Belfast and Whiterock remain running sores. This I presume is one of the reasons why Nigel Dodds is a pivotal figure. New province-wide protocols need to be agreed in advance to sort out the competing rights case by case. As everybody involved knows the issues intimately, engagement should start now. Only when protocols are agreed should the Parades Commission be finally scrapped. This will take time. Surely this would be better done when the Assembly has taken over responsibility for law and order, making it harder for all parties to duck out of their new responsibilities, taking account of advice from the police, the communities and the walkers. The big message should be, the more both sides agree to neogtiate with integrity, the more they’ll achieve. Unionists with the loyal orders and all nationalists together would then have a platform to stand on together to outface their respective dissidents and more opportunist troublemakers. On parades, we have not even begun the journey to reach that point. On this issue, we are not quite ready to govern ourselves directly. A years postponement of the final solution for parades governance seems the only way out.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London