Mo Mowlam, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday gave details of the powers which the Government intends to give to a parades commission in an attempt to avert more Drumcree-style clashes next summer.
Under the proposed legislation, the commission will take over from the Royal Ulster Constabulary's responsibility for making decisions on contested parades. It will be able to order re-routings and to impose conditions on marches. It will also encourage "mediation and education" on the parades issue.
Large-scale disruption has been experienced for the last three summer marching seasons in Northern Ireland, centring around the traditional but bitterly-contested Drumcree Orange march through a Catholic district of Portadown, Co Armagh.
There have also been lesser disputes in a number of other areas, typically where loyalist marchers have attempted to go through districts which were once predominantly Protestant but which over the years have become Catholic.
The cumulative effect has by common consent been highly damaging to community relations. This led the last Tory government to commission a detailed report on the marches issue and in its wake to establish the Parades Commission. This body was however given no real powers.
The RUC has for years asked to be relieved of some of its decision-making powers on the grounds that these have placed the force in no-win positions. The commission will take some of the weight off the force, though the legislation will provide police with a reserve power "to take whatever steps are necessary on the day to preserve public order".
The Secretary of State will retain the power to ban parades, either individually or on a blanket basis. This means in effect the responsibility for parades will be split three ways between the Government, the police and the Parades Commission.
Sinn Fein gave the proposals a guarded welcome, but most Unionist and loyalist organisations went on the attack. The Orange Order described the legislation as draconian, claiming it had been heavily influenced by the Irish government. It added: "There is nothing in this legislation for us and we reject totally the thinking that allows our faith, tradition, and culture to be treated with such contempt."
The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party described the commission as contemptible, claiming: "This is about eroding Protestant culture." The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, expressed deep reservations, saying he was sceptical whether the commission could establish any credibility. He added: "Frankly I don't think they are capable of discharging the function they had been given."
The strength of Unionist reaction to the proposed legislation, if it is maintained at this initial level, raised questions over whether marchers will accept the authority of the Commission.