Ministers duck ban on Ulster marches

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The Independent Online
The Government was yesterday accused of jeopardising peace on the streets of Northern Ireland for electoral reasons after ministers refused to implement a key recommendation in a review of the Province's marching laws.

The ministers' call for more consultation - and thus delay - on whether a new Parades Commission should take over the Royal Ulster Constabulary's responsibility for deciding whether to ban marches, threatened the normal bipartisan approach to Ulster with Opposition parties, and infuriated the Irish government.

With the start of the province's marching season just a few months away, and the prospect of violence similar to that sparked by the Orange parade at Drumcree last year, critics accused ministers of trying to placate the Ulster Unionists just to cling to power.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, told John Major, the Prime Minister, in the Commons that failure to implement the report in full would "jeopardise your peace on the streets of Northern Ireland next summer for continuing Unionist support and a few more days in power".

Replying to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who announced the establishment of the commission, his Labour opposite number, Mo Mowlam, asked why he wanted further consultation and warned that unless he acted on the "guts of the report" his approach to its recommendations would be undermined.

She urged immediate discussions with Labour and others so that they could reach consensus on legislation to put forward in March before the parades start.

Speaking on Irish radio, the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon said any delay in legislating on the proposals until after the general election represented "another cynical parliamentary sop to Unionism."

There was mounting concern in Dublin too that the Government might be dragging its heels. The Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, said the marching season will start even earlier this year, leaving barely two months for the recommendations of the North report on parades to be implemented. "I would hope that the British Government and the parties at Westminster would now give this issue the political priority it deserves," he said.

In the Commons, Sir Patrick Mayhew welcomed the proposal for a commission to mediate on disputed marches, but said there would be consultation on the whether it should replace the RUC in deciding the banning and routes of marches.

Privately, ministers made it clear they were against it. "The independent tribunal would be highly controversial. There is no way we can proceed with that before a general election," said a senior ministerial source.

The review, led by Oxford University vice-chancellor Dr Peter North and two clergymen, was ordered by Sir Patrick last July after the Orange parade banned by police at Drumcree became the flashpoint for a summer of widespread sectarian violence. Loyalists regard such marches as a traditional right, nationalists as a provocation.

The main proposal in the report, published yesterday, is the establishment of the independent five-person commission, with the task of mediating over contentious parades. It also proposes that the minimum requirement for notice of marches under the should be increased from seven to 21 days, a statutory code of conduct for organisers, participants and protesters, and the registration of bands.

Ministers risked accusations of prevaricating to avoid upsetting the Ulster Unionists to enable John Major to hold out for an election on 1 May. Opposition sources said they are deeply worried about an incoming Labour government having to deal with a summer of violent marches, as it tried to revive the cross-party talks on the peace process.

The report has already been criticised by Unionists and the Orange Order, who fear what they see as the likely involvement of the Irish government in its operations.

Mr Spring will put Dublin's concern directly to Sir Patrick Mayhew at next week's meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference, in what could be a highly charged encounter.