The Complexities of Parading – Mervyn Gibson & Sean Murray – a challenging but polite seminar

A seminar on The Complexities of Parading was held on Wednesday evening by the Journey Towards Healing project of NIAMH Wellbeing (Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health).

Gary Mason hosted the conversation, with remarks from Mervyn Gibson (minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church and assistant grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland) and Sean Murray (Sinn Féin) before opening up to the thirty or forty people present in a Belfast City Mission meeting room.

Both panel members have spent years sitting on groups and bodies that have sought to resolve issues of parading, including the Ashdown Strategic Review of Parading and the Haass talks.

Mervyn GibsonMervyn Gibson spoke first and introduced the reasons why the loyal institutions parade. He explained that marches tend to be based around British victories, including the (defeat of the gunpowder plot).

Parades don’t intend to offend, though he acknowledged that in the past some have and said “hopefully those days are past”. He explained that with the outbreak of the Troubles, some Orange Order members – like him – that took security forces route though some “took the paramilitary route”.

I didn’t join the RUC to hand out parking tickets but to fight terrorism … I wasn’t active in the Orange the whole time I was in the RUC, but when I came out to join the ministry I got involved again.

Mervyn reckoned that “like the vast majority of the Protestant people, the Order weren’t prepared for peace’ Neither were they prepared for Paisley signing up to government with Sinn Féin.

He considered that the republican movement had a surplus of manpower after the ceasefires and put them to use in street agitation around parades.

The Parades Commission was “a protestor’s charter”.

If I was a republican, I’d have pushed for it too.

Mervyn recognised that parades have always been regulated. But he wanted a fair assessment of all the circumstances rather than the ability for a small number of people to raise objections and the parade be then inevitably rerouted and constrained.

Sees GARC looking over SF’s shoulder.

I don’t want to walk through a nationalist community … But I do want to walk along main arterial routes …

In an aside he referred to the Alliance party within last winter’s Haass talks as “extremely hard on parades and culture issues … we’d have had to licence everything … would have been like a Fascist state”.

We’re up for a deal. I’m not hear to talk about Twaddell specifically but I can’t see that there’ll be progress until the three lodges get home … We’re being held to hostage by those six minutes up the road.

Sean MurraySean Murray described parading disputes as “a microcosm of our society” and said parading was “a complex and emotive issue”.

He used Parades Commission figures to explain the very small proportion of parades that are actually contentious. While “small in number” they still have “a massive potential [to hit] a raw nerve … that could cause an outbreak of conflict”.

Sean’s way of dealing with parading is to recognise that “there are competing rights involved … but the rights aren’t absolute”.

The only way to sort out the problems is to sit down face to face to resolve [them].

He also wanted each side to ask:

How will my insistence on parading affect by neighbour? How will what I want to do impact the rights and freedoms of others?

Regulation would come into play “where you don’t have dialogue, or dialogue fails”.

Sean admits that everyone – including republicans – had previously abused parades as a political football, “but that’s gone”.

He saw the 2010 resolution as a foundation for a new agreement. While politics were “more tetchy now … it augurs well”. However, he cautioned that neither side could “set out to have a victory over parading”. Both sides . Both sides needed to give something to reach agreement.

I don’t like every determination the Parades Commission have made, but I’ve accepted their determinations.

During the Q&A [listen in two parts] Sean commented that he had a problem with the behaviour of some republican bands.

1 the panelMervyn took issue with the characterisation that parading had been solved in Londonderry. He described the current agreement as “benign benevolence by the republican community … that could be withdrawn at any time”.

Asked what was wrong with the parading proposals in the Haass proposals he referred to the code of conduct and the criteria for objections, but admitted it had been months since he’d looked at the Haass proposals.

He was clear that internal unionist politics had led to the Hillsborough deal on parading being turned down by the Orange Order – the proposals were unexpected defeated at Grand Lodge by [around] five votes. “I don’t think we were far away from agreeing it.” But given the good cooperation amongst unionist parties at the moment he didn’t want to dwell on the past.

He also explained that the Orange Order had “front loaded the process” giving local autonomy to each local lodge to talk locally to resolve issues if they can.

Linda Ervine challenged Mervyn Gibson over condemnation earlier this year “by a leading member of the Orange Order” of her Irish language project in East Belfast. She recounted being called to a meeting with the Grand Master and other members. Naively she thought she would get an apology; instead she was again condemned and given a “a good telling off”.

Linda asked “how can an organisation which displays such intolerance ask for tolerance?”

She also called on the Orange Order to make a symbolic show of tolerance by allowing members to attend funerals of Catholic friends and relatives.

Councillor Deirdre Hargey asked how an Irish identity could be manifested through flags and parades. She explained that councillors had been debating the flag for two years before the vote was taken in December 2013. Her party had moved from a position of “neutrality [two flags or none] to voting for 16 days” which was significant. Deirdre called for further dialogue like tonight’s seminar.

Towards the end of the evening, Brian Ervine called for a spirit of generosity.

– – –

Looking down on Niamh parading seminarI was surprised at how calmly the subject was debated, particularly given how crowded the small room was, and how people with very different political opinions were sitting cheek by jowl.

With fewer parades and more political need to rein in the republican bands, it seems easier for Sean Murray to call for give and take over parading than it is for Mervyn Gibson and the loyal orders who feel under threat and persecution from the Parades Commission. This means that Sean sounds rational and generous while Mervyn seems less open to saying ‘lets sit down and resolve everything’.

Talking is cheap – though necessary – compared with action. But is action possible?

As the seminar title suggested, parading is complex. The two speakers know each other’s viewpoints. While agreement was largely reached in behind-the-scenes between the DUP and Sinn Féin during the Haass talks, it was fragile and quickly fell apart when the smaller parties became involved. The Orange Order’s insistence on the precondition that the Twaddell parade “returns home” before any deal will be done points to a larger political game being played rather than a desire to resolve the localised parading disputes in North Belfast. It may fall to Sinn Féin to make a generous public gesture around other nearby parades in order to resolve the deadlock. But with elections looming – perhaps Westminster and the Assembly in May if talks don’t go well – it’s not in Sinn Féin’s interest to play into the hands of the small but significant disaffected republican voices in West Belfast and be seen to loose ground to the loyal orders.

The next Journey Towards Healing seminar is on Irish Language: Shared History or Theirs? and will be held at 7pm on 19 November in the Skainos centre. Register attendance in advance with Sarah Caldwell s.caldwell AT niamhwellbeing DOT org or Gary Mason g.mason AT niamhwellbeing DOT org

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.