The great parades debate

The Orange Order is suing the Northern Ireland Parades Commission for breaching the European Convention on Human Rights by undermining the right to march. Brendan O'Neill 'facilitated a debate'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘It is authoritarian, draconian, contrary to the principles of civil liberty, and anti-democratic. Do you want more?’

George Patton, executive officer of the Orange Order, is not happy with the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. The commission’s job is to ‘resolve disputes over contentious parades’ in Northern Ireland – but according to Patton it does a better job of ‘creating disputes’ and ‘inflaming tensions’. ‘Its instincts are always to clamp down, re-route, enforce bans, and restrict protest’, says Patton. ‘Which doesn’t do wonders for the problems of the marching season.’

The Parades Commission was born out of a review set up by the Conservative government in August 1996, following disturbances over Orange parades in Northern Ireland for the second summer running. But the Orange Order’s friends in the Tory Party procrastinated over implementing the review’s recommendations, and it wasn’t until Mo Mowlam took up her position as secretary of state for Northern Ireland under New Labour in 1997 that the commission was given the teeth it needed to intervene in the marching season. ‘Trust New Labour to put empowering yet another quango before the right to march’, says Patton.

Now – ‘pushed to the end of its tether’ – the Orange Order is taking drastic action. On 10 July 2001, it ‘instructed solicitors to instigate legal proceedings against the Parades Commission, on the basis that bans and restrictions imposed on a number of Orange parades are in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights’ (1). You know times have changed when even the Orange Order presents itself as yet another victimised minority group turning to the courts for the help of human rights legislation. But Patton is excited. ‘We’re looking forward to engaging with the commission in court’, he says. ‘Sparks should fly.’

But why wait until the court case? In true dispute-resolving style, I relayed the Orange Order’s case to the Parades Commission to find out what the commission had to say for itself.

‘The Parades Commission is anti-democratic.’

‘It is an unelected quango’, says Patton, ‘and the Orange Order is a mass democratic organisation. Yet the unelected quango tells the mass democratic organisation whether it is allowed to march, how far it is allowed to march, and what flags it should fly while marching. The Parades Commission is unaccountable, and we’re insulted that setting up another quango is seen as the best solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland.’

Some might ask what the Orange Order knows about democracy. It might be a mass democratic organisation for Protestants, but not for Catholics, who are forbidden from joining. The Orange Order was founded in 1795 with the purpose of intimidating Catholics and Irish nationalists, and since the partition of Ireland in 1921 has defended the gerrymandered set-up in Northern Ireland that effectively disenfranchised the Catholic community – with Lord Craigavon, Northern Ireland’s first prime minister and leading member of the Orange Order, describing the Northern Ireland parliament as ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ (2).

But Patton has a point – if anything, the Parades Commission’s approach is even less democratic than what went before.

‘There are definitely benefits to being unelected’, says Tony Holland, chairman of the Parades Commission. ‘For example, they elect judges in Texas, don’t they? And they tend to reflect the tabloid approach to sentencing. The Parades Commission is not responsible to an electorate, and therefore we can be much more objective, much more open in the way we look at things.’

From this worldview, the last people you should trust to resolve the parading problem are the people of Northern Ireland – who are just too bogged down in the politics of it all to be able to keep a cool head. Far better to have an outsider like Holland, who stands above the ignorant masses and the messy business of politics and self-interest. ‘Being unelected means we can be more judicial’, says Holland. ‘If we had to be elected again, then frankly what you’d get is what the majority wanted winning through every time, and others wouldn’t be heard.’

The Orange Order’s idea of ‘democracy’ might have been Protestants lording it over Catholics – but the Parades Commission’s contemptuous view is that neither side of the community can be trusted with anything like a political decision. ‘I had no knowledge of Northern Ireland before I came here’, says Holland, as if it was a virtue. ‘So I can probably be more objective than most and make a decision based on the facts.’

‘The Parades Commission rides roughshod over civil liberties.’

‘The apparatus that the commission operates within [the Public Processions Order] fundamentally undermines the basic human rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of movement’, says Patton. ‘The Orange Order is committed to civil and religious liberty, so we cannot – will not – support an organisation that has no respect for those liberties’.

But the Orange Order didn’t complain when the Special Powers Act (1922) was used to undermine the rights of Catholics and republicans for much of the past 80 years. Northern Ireland’s Special Powers Act allowed the authorities to carry out mass arrests and imprison people without trial – or, in fact, to do anything it liked in the name of preventing disorder: ‘The civil authority shall have power, in respect of persons, matters and things within the jurisdiction of the government of Northern Ireland, to take all such steps and issue all such orders as may be necessary for preserving the peace and maintaining order.’ (3) You might think the Orange Order would be thankful that all it has to put up with is having its parades re-routed.

Yet according to Tony Holland, the Parades Commission doesn’t have the power to ban parades – and ‘never has done’. This might be true, technically – but the Public Processions Order allows the Parades Commission to do anything it likes to a parade, whether that means re-routing it, telling it how far it can proceed, where it should stop, how long it can last, how loud it can be, how many flags it can fly, and how much alcohol can be consumed on it (usually none). ‘The Commission may issue a determination in respect of a proposed public procession imposing on the persons organising or taking part in it such conditions as the Commission considers necessary’, says the Public Processions Order. ‘Yes, but we don’t ban parades’, insists Holland.

The Parades Commission also undermines the right to protest – extending the period of notice required for a public procession from not less than seven days to ‘not less than 14 days’ (except for ‘funeral processions’ – thankfully). Having to notify the police two weeks in advance of any public procession seriously restricts people’s right to protest – making it impossible to take issue with events as and when they happen.

But Tony Holland is unapologetic. ‘There is no absolute right to freedom of assembly’, he says. ‘It is a freedom of assembly that can be limited. The Parades Commission can’t ban a march, we can only restrict it or re-route it – so people still have their freedom of assembly, but we’re just saying that they can’t assemble at a particular point because it might cause disruption or lead to other people’s rights being infringed.’ But if you can’t assemble ‘at a particular point’ for whatever reason you want whenever you want, how can people ‘still have their freedom of assembly’?

‘The job of the Parades Commission is to balance rights’, says Holland, ‘because what one part of the community considers to be its “right” could represent the undermining of rights for the other part of the community’. So not only does the Parades Commission restrict rights – it presents Protestant and Catholic rights as contradictory, in desperate need of being balanced by the steadying hand of the Parades Commission. No doubt this does wonders for community relations.

‘The Parades Commission treats people in Northern Ireland like children.’

‘The commission imposes codes of conduct on parades’, says Patton, ‘which basically tell people how they should behave while marching. Well thank you, but I don’t need to be told how to behave, and neither do most people in Northern Ireland. It’s like the commission is schoolteacher and the rest of us are naughty schoolchildren’.

Not content with telling people where and when they can march, the Parades Commission also tells them how to behave while marching. Recommendation 25 of the North Report (the review that created the Parades Commission), says: ‘A code of conduct should be introduced covering the behaviour both of participants in a parade and of protesters.’ And recommendation 27 says that these codes ‘should have an appropriate statutory basis’ – in short, do as you’re told, or else.

The codes of conduct reach parts of marchers’ behaviour that other legislation never could – covering general behaviour (‘be polite and courteous at all times’); dress (‘no paramilitary-style clothing’); refreshments (‘alcohol should not be consumed prior to, or during, a parade’); music (‘hymn tunes only, no party tunes’); and flags and banners (‘should not depict any scene which could reasonably be perceived as threatening, abusive or insulting’) (4).

Patton reckons the codes of conduct are ‘a joke’. ‘I have only ever believed in peaceful parading’, he says. ‘But parades can provoke passion in people – you might suddenly have someone shouting abuse at you and giving you a piece of their mind. What I want to know is how a code of conduct can get around incidents like that. Should we be going up to police officers and telling them that someone has just been dreadfully rude and should be arrested?’

Tony Holland sees it differently. ‘Most parades might be peaceful and pass off without incident’, he says, ‘but think about the parades with loud bands. In some small towns – I won’t name any of them just now – you’ll have 30 or 40 bands parading in a competition, running from 8am to midnight, and they’ll be drinking beer and getting drunk and shouting and urinating all over the place, and that kind of thing drives people to distraction.’ With such a nightmarish view of Northern Ireland and its natives, no wonder Holland thinks a statutory, law-enforceable code of conduct is the only solution.

Of course, Orange parades are a drag for most people who aren’t Orangemen. After all, their aim has always been to intimidate the Catholic community by being as loud, threatening and offensive as possible (hence the deafeningly loud Lambeg Drum – which might now be referred to as part of ‘Ulster Scot’s cultural heritage’, but in reality was always a tool of intimidation). But restricting people’s movements and behaviour – and playing one community’s rights against another’s – has exacerbated tensions, not resolved them.

‘The Parades Commission creates apartheid.’

‘The commission and how it works legitimises a concept of apartheid’, says Patton. ‘It accepts the view that the public highway cannot be used by certain groups because people of a different tradition might live on part of that route – and this gives a certain amount of credibility to an apartheid system based on cultural, racial or religious grounds. It enforces decisions based on there being two communities that have to be constantly policed and kept separate – and that can’t be productive.’

This is the accusation that sounds least convincing coming from the Orange Order – but which captures one of the biggest problems with the Parades Commission. The Orange Order is in no position to talk about apartheid and ‘keeping communities separate’, considering that its raison d’être was traditionally the exclusion of one community from the decision-making process. But it’s true – the Parades Commission exacerbates the sectarian divide rather than attempting to overcome it.

The Parades Commission is founded on the idea that Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide is permanent – with the commission at best being the ‘go-between’ and at worst having to police and enforce sectarian divisions. That’s the thinking behind its ‘proximity talks’, where the commission communicates messages between the Orange Order and nationalist residents’ groups without ever (God forbid) letting them meet – and also why it sees Protestant rights and Catholic rights as being at loggerheads, in need of a balancing act.

But according to Tony Holland (the man who boasts that he knew nothing about Northern Ireland until he arrived last year) that’s how Northern Ireland is – and there’s nothing you can do about it. ‘That is the problem of Northern Ireland’, he says. ‘There is this tremendous divide, which is surprising in a Christian society, where you’d think they would pay regards to the story of the Good Samaritan – they don’t practice what they preach. Every institution that is involved in a decision-making process in Northern Ireland reflects the fact that it’s a deeply divided society – and that’s how they seem to like it.’

The Parades Commission freezes sectarian divisions in laws, restrictions and statutory codes of conduct, helping to ensure that such divisions are fresh in people’s minds – especially during the already heated marching season.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Northern Ireland: Trimbling at the brink?, by Brendan O’Neill

Northern Ireland: peace, but no politics, by Chris Gilligan

(1) ‘Human rights campaign’, Orange Order press release, 10 July 2001

(2) See A guide to Northern Ireland: Stormot, Belfast Telegraph

(3) See the text of the Special Powers Act (1922)

(4) See The North Report on Parades in Northern Ireland, HMSO, January 1997

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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