Orangemen urged to back parades plan

Orangemen will be urged by their leaders today to back key parading proposals linked to the landmark deal to devolve law and order powers to Northern Ireland.

The central committee of the Grand Lodge of Ireland will recommend that rank and file members support the joint Sinn Fein/Democratic Unionist plan at the organisation's quarterly meeting this morning.

The endorsement of the Orange institution is seen as crucial to the ultimate success of the proposed changes to how contentious marches are managed.

But today's talks follow the declaration by the Ulster Unionist Party yesterday that it was not yet ready to back the Hillsborough Agreement on devolving policing and justice powers that paved the way for the proposed parade reforms.

The new framework for marches was devised by a six man Sinn Fein/DUP working group that was set up as part of the wide-ranging accord hammered out by Stormont's two main parties at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down last month.

The DUP's three representatives on the group briefed the order's central committee on Monday and it is understood the senior Orange representatives gave their proposals the thumbs up.

While details of the new management structures have not been made public, it is understood they are heavily influenced by a recent review of parades carried out by former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown.

Central to those was the axing of the current Parades Commission adjudication panel, with more emphasis placed on achieving localised resolutions.

The parades settlement is a key tenet of the Hillsborough Agreement which has been credited with staving off the threatened collapse of the powersharing government.

The deal sets out a series of inter-connected processes that will see justice powers devolved from London to Belfast in April and revised parading legislation placed on the statute by the end of the year.

The Grand Lodge meeting comes ahead of next week's crucial vote in the Assembly on the proposed timetable for law and order transfer.

While Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionists have the electoral strength to push through the motion when it is put before the Assembly on Tuesday, they could be deprived of the all party support they crave if the Ulster Unionists follow through on threats to reject the agreement.

The UUP, which harbours concerns about the Executive's ability to deal with such important security functions, called together its MLAs for internal talks in Co Antrim yesterday to consider how it will vote.

The party leadership last night announced it would not be supporting the landmark deal to devolve policing powers.

Party leader Sir Reg Empey said the Hillsborough Agreement was not acceptable in its current form.

The party's decision is potentially problematic for the Conservative Party, which has an electoral pact with the UUP in Northern Ireland. David Cameron is a supporter of the Hillsborough deal and he now faces the prospect of going to the polls aligned to a party which opposes it.

Sinn Fein and the DUP and the British and Irish governments, have stressed that a unanimous vote in the Assembly would send out a loud message to those seeking to undermine the power-sharing institutions, in particular dissident republicans.

Yesterday DUP First Minister Peter Robinson said it would be a mistake if anyone opposed the deal, claiming it was effectively a vote on the future of the Stormont government.

"This is an issue about the future of devolution," he said. "People want it to work, people want to continue to move forward.

"I am the first to put up my hand and say this is not a perfect system, it is not the system that we would have chosen but it is the system that we have.

"It has provided and underpinned peace and stability in Northern Ireland and I don't think people would be easily forgiven if it was thrown away."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness addressed the opening of his party's Ard Fheis in Dublin last night and told the annual Sinn Fein conference that the Ulster Unionist decision was an "abysmal failure of political leadership" which placed party politics before the stability of the Assembly.