15 May 2008 Edition
Interview : Seán 'Spike' Murray, member of the Strategic Review of Parading Body
Parades body’s report ‘not set in stone’
BY LAURA FRIEL
THE PARADES body’s interim report last month created anxiety amongst some key residents’ groups who feared that the proposals would lead to a ‘pre-1998 situation’. Seán Murray, a republican former POW and member of the Strategic Review of Parading Body, speaks to An Phoblacht to address those fears.
“The first thing to make clear is that the report published last month by the review body is an interim report designed to encourage further debate. It is not written in stone. No one has signed up to the proposals. It’s simply work-in-progress.
“The interim report emerged as part of a consultation process and will enable further consultation to take place in a meaningful way. It’s just a mechanism to let people know: ‘This is where we are at. Come and let us know what you think.’ It’s about informed engagement,” says Seán.
In a joint statement carried by the Irish News, the Garvaghy and Ormeau Road residents’ groups highlighted the relative peace of recent summers and raised concerns about a return to violence.
They suggested the review’s recommendations would “politicise” the parading issue by giving a role to local bodies such as the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and local councils and suggested that would inevitably lead to a return to confrontation.
“The roles envisaged by the review to be played by OFMDFM and local councils are both very limited and very specific. They are administrative, not political, roles and fall outside the decision-making process.
“It is proposed that all requests for parades should be processed through the council administration. A request for a parade would be registered just like someone registering a birth, marriage or death. It would then be the council administration’s responsibility to inform all stakeholders of the proposed parade, including residents’ groups, the PSNI and anyone else. Local councils would also have a responsibility to facilitate local dialogue and mediation by providing funding and a venue.”
“The proposed role of OFMDFM is also very specific. It would be the job of OFMDFM to appoint adjudicators to sit on a panel to determine the outcome of specific parading issues. Adjudication would only be deployed where there was no resolution through local dialogue or mediation. The appointments would be made according to open, robust, public appointment procedures,” says Seán.
“Any notion that the operation of the current Parades Commission is somehow non-political is misguided nonsense. The Parades Commission is appointed and directed by the NIO.
“A recent attempt by the then British Secretary of State, Peter Hain, to stack the membership of the Parades Commission in the interests of unionists is a clear indication that the current system is open to political manipulation.
“Hain’s actions were neither transparent nor did they adhere to accepted public appointments practice. Residents successfully challenged Hain’s appointments in the courts,” Seán recalls.
“Under NIO direction in recent years the Parades Commission has decided not to force Orange Order parades down the Garvaghy and Ormeau Road – but that could change.
“Peaceful summers should not be left simply in the gift of the British Government to be bestowed or denied as and when they see fit. Under the present regime, the Parades Commission has no working relationship with residents’ groups. In contrast, dialogue and resolutions at a local level are at the heart of the review body’s recommendations,” says Séan.
Murray pointed out that it is likely that parading disputes will be increasingly challenged through the courts.
“The loyal orders have already taken a legal case against the determination for Dunloy and strong rumours indicate that the Portadown lodge is currently preparing a legal challenge to the usual determination for Garvaghy Road,” says Seán.
“This will put residents’ groups at a further disadvantage because they are not fully protected under existing European human rights legislation. That’s because European legislation and case law gives particular weight to the right to march and free assembly.
“But this is a far cry from the issues around parading in the North of Ireland. In the Six Counties, parading has been used to assert unionist ascendancy. Here, asserting the right to march has been an anti-democratic mechanism to maintain sectarian division and unionist supremacism.
“That’s why a Bill of Rights, rooted in the specific experience of the Six Counties, is fundamental to resolving parading issues because it will place the right to march within the wider context of the right to live free from sectarian harassment and other competing independent rights.
Seán notes that the Good Friday Agreement recognises the right to live free from sectarian harassment but it needs to be incorporated within a Bill of Rights to be properly effective, he says.
“The interim report also recommends enforceable codes of conduct. The current Parades Commission can impose codes of conduct upon parades but they are not enforceable. We need a legally binding code of conduct which attracts legal sanctions if they are flouted. We need to establish standards of acceptable behaviour amongst those taking part in parades.”
The Garvaghy and Ormeau residents’ groups also raised concerns about the impact of any transfer of powers on the parading issue.
“The first thing to make clear is that parading is a reserved matter, which means that if the transfer of powers happened tomorrow the parades issue would require a review committee to be established to ascertain if the issue of parades should be transferred,” says Seán.
“It has been suggested that republicans are using the parading issue as political leverage in their negotiations with the DUP on the issue of the transfer of powers. This is nonsense.
“There are a number of practical impediments which must be overcome if we are to address the issue of parading in a way that empowers local people. Delay in the transfer of powers is one impediment and another is the enactment of the Bill of Rights to incorporate the particular circumstances. Without democratic control and the appropriate legal framework resolution of the parades issue cannot be fully realised,” says Seán.
Seán Murray is not only a member of the review body but also plays a key role in the interface network, the Belfast Conflict Resolution Consortium, and sees unionist engagement as essential to tackling the parades issue.
“It is only through a process of sustained engagement that nationalists and unionists can better understand one another. The issues of parading and interfaces are often linked. Tensions on the interface can be heightened during parades especially where there has been no local dialogue or agreement.
“Dialogue is absolutely fundamental to the process of developing a better understanding and through dialogue we can identify areas of common cause with unionist communities. This is particularly true when it comes to issues of poverty in working-class unionist areas. We can find issues and ways of working together and that has to be good for everyone.”