The chair of the Parades Commission has said he can’t guarantee that loyalist breaches to last year’s Twelfth parade conditions will have any impact on their decision making on this year’s march in Ardoyne.
In an interview with the North Belfast News this week Peter Osborne said every parade will be weighed up on its own merit and he could not say if last July’s breaches will have any bearing on this year’s outcome, the decision on which is expected late next week.
Last year the PSNI handed over a file to the Public Prosecution Service detailing the breaches of the Parades Commission’s rulings on the Twelfth parade in Ardoyne.
The Parades Commission had ruled in July 2011 that the Orange Order parade could go pa1t nationalist homes in Ardoyne, however no music including a drum beat was to be played, that flags must remain furled and no bannerettes on show at that stage of the march. After an eleventh hour U-turn the day before the contentious parade, the commission ruled that the only flag that could remain unfurled was the Union Jack, but all other flags must not be flying freely. However during the morning parade a drumbeat was used and a massive banner saying ‘Republicanism = Cultural Apartheid’ led the parade . On the return parade a bannerette was used and an Ulster flag and Orange Order flag was flying.
Peter Osborne insisted that despite the PSNI investigation, his group needs to look at each parade individually and it would not mean this year’s parade would be automatically banned.
“Those sorts of things, if they happen we check them out and have different reports on what happened and seek parade or protest organisers ‘views,” he said.
“All of that will be factored and taken into account along with other criteria balanced with the Human Rights Act, as well as looking at other factors such as the impact on community relations and community life.”
When asked if he understood why some people in Ardoyne find it difficult to engage with the Parades Commission when they allow the Orange Order parade through the area every year, despite clear flouting of the commission’s own determinations, Mr Osborne said they treat each parade application seriously and look at all aspects of its impact.
“Whatever behavioral issues there are, where we have asked opinions from people and people come back to us we take it all into account along with other factors,” he said.
“If the police pass on a file to the PPS that is not an issue for us, we don’t get involved in that, prosecution is not something we either are involved with or have an opinion on in terms of any area, including North Belfast.”
Loyal Order parades have long been an issue in North Belfast, particularly in areas such as Ardoyne, Duncairn Gardens. Whitewell, and Carrickhill.
The Ardoyne parade has been the most contentious, with rioting and violence occurring in the area after the Orange Order parade in recent summers. In July 2010 the violence lasted for four days.
Local residents’ groups Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents’ Association (CARA) and the Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective (GARC) were both set up on the nationalist side to try and deal with the parades issue whilst the North and West Parades and Cultural Forum was set up to represent unionists.
This year the former speaker of the Stormont Assembly, Lord John Alderdice, was asked to lead a new initiative aimed at resolving parade disputes in the area along with Holy Cross priest Father Gary Donegan and the former Presbyterian Moderator, the Reverend Norman Hamilton.
Mr Osborne has been chair of the parade arbitrator since January 2011 and this summer will be his eighth as a member of the commission.
With a background in community relations as well as being a former Alliance councillor, he said he is pleased with the dialogue taking place regarding parades in North Belfast particularly the talks being mediated by Lord John Alderdice.
“The process (of the mediation group) is still ongoing, in context of where we are at in North Belfast we have been in the Ardoyne community facilitating, mediation and have been there for probably close to 10 years,” he said,
“I think that it has been hugely important in developing relationships amongst other things.
“I also have to say there has been a huge commitment by participants in these talks and I want to pay tribute to the work they have done in helping to manage parades and taking part in dialogue.
“I also want to thanks John Alderdice, Gary Donegan and Norman Hamilton (the mediators) who very willingly took on this difficult task.”
The chairman defended the need to bring in another outside body to try and tackle Ardoyne’s long running parade dispute.
“The Parades Commission is tasked with a few functions. One is to arbitrate on parades where there is still contention and local agreement hasn’t been found.
“The second is to try and facilitate mediation and to try and find local agreement. We can’t actively do one and also do the other, we can’t mediate ourselves.”
He also responded to criticism that announcing the formation of the mediation group in April this year, less than 12 weeks before the Twelfth, was too late for both sides to reach an agreement.
“I think it is unfair for people to say that for two or three reasons,” he said.
“The Parades Commission has been engaging in facilitating in mediation for a decade, the latest round of mediation we all know about but before that there was previous mediation that started in March 2011 when the (North and West Parades and Cultural) Forum and CARA (Crumlin Road and Ardoyne Residents’ Association) asked us to support a process and we were happy to do so.
“This finished at the end of October 2011 and we had to spend time taking stock and trying to start a new initiative. So really there was only a few months between that process finishing and the new one starting.”
When asked the rationale behind the Parades Commission’s banning the Tour of the North parade from passing through Ardoyne last year (201) whilst then allowing the Twelfth parade take the same route, Mr Osborne said each parade is looked at it on its own development.
“We have a number of set criteria to assess and make judgments based upon these criteria,” he said.
“We set down a series of guidelines that allow us a fair bit of flexibility and discretion because no parade is the same, things change from one month to another, from one parade to another.
“One may be more traditional; one may have behavioural issues, I am not talking about North Belfast but generally about parades.
“So one parade may lead to one decision and other might needs to another decision over a short period of time.”