Has the Orange Order killed the Parades Bill?

Tom Griffin
16 July 2010

The Northern Ireland Executive mounted a striking show of unity in the face of several nights of violence in Belfast this week, as the marching season reached its annual 12 July climax.

Both Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) condemned the trouble in Ardoyne as the work of dissident republicans looking to exploit what has become a predictable flashpoint. Some commentators have backed that view, though others have suggested that it is too simplistic. While there may be little support for the (largely youthful) rioters, many nationalists continue to regard Orange parades as coat-trailing exercises.

The framework for managing such tensions in future is a matter of increasing uncertainty as doubts grow over the Executive's planned Public Assemblies Bill.

The bill has been widely criticised as an attack on the right to peaceful assembly. As Amnesty's Robbie Best noted here last month, it would require a notice period of 37 days for any demonstration of more than 50 people.

The legislation emerged as a result of the negotiations over devolution of justice to Stormont earlier this year. As devolution was a Sinn Féin goal, a unionist quid pro quo was required, and it is due to come in the form of the abolition of Parades Commission, which has always been deeply unpopular with the Orange Order.

Sinn Féin could not agree to that without continuing arrangements to safeguard the interests of nationalist residents affected by parades, so a replacement regime is needed. 

In reaching this complex compromise, both Sinn Féin and the DUP look to have misjudged their own constituencies. 

Veteran civil rights activist Eamonn McCann suggested recently that Sinn Fein was on its way to a u-turn after residents groups rejected the bill.

The DUP may also be in a similar position after the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland narrowly voted against the bill last week.

There were complaints afterwards that the DUP had been ambushed by delegates linked to the rival Ulster Unionist Party.

The allegation underlines the close relationship that both parties have with the Order, a link whose extent was recently criticised by blogger Unionist Lite:

According to its own figures, the Orange Order presently has 35,000 members in Northern Ireland; that’s approximately 3% of the current Northern Irish electorate, 5.2% of the electorate who voted last May, 11% of the total who voted for the pro-Union parties. With those kind of figures, the Order is then merely a medium-sized lobby group in the context of the wider Northern Irish politics? No.

A total of 37 Northern Ireland’s MLAs belong to an Orange Order Lodge, that’s over 33% of the total membership of the Assembly, a staggering 66% of the combined total of pro-Union representatives. Those figures don’t represent the strength of a lobby group, more of the all-pervasive influence the Trade Unions imposed on pre-Blairite Labour. And as over time that Trade Union link proved to be a liability rather than an asset in the modern age to the Labour Party, I believe the same is true with the continuing Orange Link with political Unionism.

The election of Sir Reg Empey's successor as Ulster Unionist leader in the autumn may be a key indicator of the future of that relationship. Of the two most heavily touted contenders, Tom Elliott is a senior Orangeman, while Basil McCrea is not a member of the Order, and has been strongly critical of Orange-supported proposals for a single pan-unionist party

However that debate evolves, the Order will be a key player in the future of the Parades Bill. As things stand, the Grand Lodge is, ironically, ranged alongside some of its bitterest dissident republican critics in opposing the legislation. More centrist voices have also spoken out, with the Committee for the Administration of Justice warning that the bill may violate the European Convention on Human Rights. It's an unlikely coalition, but it could yet prove decisive.

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