Leading Article: The Orange question receives a yellow answer

Click to follow
Funny how those of our fellow citizens who are most keen to assert their British kinship seem most alien to the majority of us. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, whose cause is that his people are our people, sometimes appears on our television screens as a reasonable man, a modern democratic politician. Last summer he appeared in a country scene, by a country church, in a part of what looked very much like our green and pleasant land. But he had come to Drumcree to put himself at the head of a mob engaged in intimidation, in a situation that seemed entirely foreign.

Yesterday Peter Robinson, deputy leader of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, declared that this summer the important questions would be the same as last summer: "Do Orangemen march down the Garvaghy Road? Will the Black Preceptory parade the Ormeau? Will the Apprentice Boys walk the Walls of Londonderry?"

To most of the rest of the population of the United Kingdom, he might as well have asked: "Whither the Fifth Lord of the Mysterons?"

If the past is a foreign country, then Messrs Trimble and Robinson are abroad in the 17th century, living embodiments of the historical roots of the problems of Northern Ireland. But you did not need a history degree to understand the situation in Drumcree last year. The situation was so simple that even the American government - which has had a patchy record of understanding Northern Ireland - got it right in a report yesterday.

An Orangemen's parade was banned. A mass of Orangemen refused to disperse and for several days there was a stand-off with the police. And then the march was allowed to continue. It was "perceived", according to the careful language of the US State Department report on human rights, "as a victory of might over the rule of law".

It was a terrible episode. Questions were asked about why the authorities had not anticipated it. Orange marches are an annual event, after all, and it is known in advance where the most offence to the Roman Catholic population is caused. Questions were asked about the RUC's handling of the situation once it developed. As the State Department report again observes: "The incidents damaged the RUC's reputation as an impartial police force."

John Major, with the wholehearted bipartisan support of Tony Blair, resolved that Drumcree would never happen again. And he appointed a committee, headed by Dr Peter North of Oxford University, to suggest how a repetition might be avoided.

Yesterday, Dr North made his suggestions. They were carefully thought out and sensible. A Parades Commission should be set up to adjudicate disputes arising from the route or conduct of marches, and it would be an offence to flout the commission's decisions by force of numbers or threat of disorder.

What was the Government's response? Yes, it will set up an independent commission. But give it any powers? Well, that would be a "radical and far-reaching" step, and it would have to consult widely about that. Until March. Never mind that the North Committee has consulted for months and received 300 submissions, the imperative is to delay. Time is short, as Dr North pointed out, which suggests that the Government does not really want to do anything in time for this year's marching season. Why not?

Was it because the RUC were opposed to the proposals? No. A new independent body would "correct the misconception that the RUC licenses parades", said Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan.

Mr Blair supports the North report and would help rush through legislation immediately to enact it, and so does Paddy Ashdown. But the Ulster Unionists don't like it. The commission would be a "factory of grievances". It would incite Roman Catholics to complain about innocuous marches which have taken place without incident since 1689.

And Mr Trimble can decide when the general election will be, so the Government has given in.

Mr Blair yesterday castigated the Prime Minister (over Europe) as "weak, weak, weak, weak". But his own response to the Government's inaction has been muted. One suspects that Labour would have been just as happy as Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, if MPs yesterday had not been bothered with the technicalities of the Government's reasons for not accepting Dr North's recommendations.

To be fair, his Northern Ireland spokeswoman, Mo Mowlam, said Labour agreed with the North report and challenged Sir Patrick to explain why further consultations were needed.

"What views will you seek that have not already been sought by the reviewers? And why do you think that in just eight weeks you will be able to improve on the conclusions that those conducting the review reached over five months?"

But it was left to Mr Ashdown to kick up a fuss. Failure to act on the report would "jeopardise your peace on the streets of Northern Ireland next summer for continuing Unionist support and a few more days in power", he told the Prime Minister.

Mr Major replied with what is becoming his standard, ineffective attempt to patronise awkward questioners. Clutching at the straw of paragraph 149 of Dr North's report, which mentions the need for consultation, he said the issue was "rather more complicated than you intimated". He is wrong. The issue is simple. It is, as the State Department says, the rule of law.

Labour should not be so cautious. It is the Government's cowardice which threatens the bipartisan consensus on Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister's attempt to spin out the life of his administration is endangering the peace of the streets in a part of our country.