Obstacles on the road to stopping another Drumcree

A planned commission on disputed march routes in Northern Ireland looks set for deadlock

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It isn't every day that a report commissioned by the British government quotes Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney and - with stunning appropriateness, given that the subject is Northern Ireland - a remark by Rabindranath Tagore to the effect that leadership in a diverse society is weak and harmful if it based on consolidating differences. But then the report of the Independent Review of Parades and Marches is an unusual document.

It was set up under the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, Dr Peter North, last August in the shattering aftermath of the events at Drumcree. In proposing a powerful new commission which would adjudicate over disputed march routes, it has sought to do something limited and practical but none the less ambitious: to avoid a repeat of last year's catastrophe. Then, the Orange Order, by sheer force of numbers, persuaded the RUC to reverse its ruling against a march down the Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown. The aim for North was to restore some of the faith in the British state which drained away from the nationalist minority - middle-class apolitical Catholics included - immediately after that decision.

It was a carefully balanced review. David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, claimed in the Commons last Thursday to be "amazed" that there was no reference in the report to the IRA or Sinn Fein or "to those elements that are associated with them which have used the occasions to foment serious public disorder ..." He was taking a liberty with the facts. The innuendo that Dr North and his team were innocents abroad, unaware of protestant insecurity or Sinn Fein intimidation, simply doesn't wash. The report explicitly points out that "Unionist experience of suffering at the hands of the Provisional IRA ... [has] played a large part in the widespread sense of anger felt by members of the Loyal Orders against the residents' groups which oppose parades." It notes that many residents' associations are indeed single-issue groups set up since the ceasefire; it even favourably contrasts some of these with the Ardoyne residents group, set up in 1973 and with a constitution requiring a member from each street on its committee. Furthermore, it proposes, as its first principle, that the "right to peaceful free assembly should (with certain qualifications) be protected". What the report also does, however, is accept the pain and fear inflicted by a minority of the Orange parades on ordinary Catholics - and that the exercise of that right should "take account of the likely effect on their relationships with other parts of the community ..."

The Unionists are on weak ground in opposing this stipulation, which is perhaps why Mr Trimble didn't overtly try to do so in the Commons. It's not as if North can be said to be part of some covert shuffle towards a united Ireland. The Unionists have claimed that because under Margaret Thatcher's Anglo-Irish agreement, Dublin has a right to nominate members of public bodies in Northern Ireland, it will help to determine the composition of the commission. But the appointments remain firmly in the hands of the British Secretary of State, and anyway the Irish government has already indicated that it would not even nominate to the commission. In fact North is settlement-neutral; it seeks instead to inject an element of the mutual respect between the two traditions in Northern Ireland which every serious politician insists, at least in public, is necessary whatever its future. And each failure of the constitutional process, like the Government's refusal to commit itself to the most fundamental recommendation of North, threatens to strengthen the standing of Sinn Fein in nationalist areas at the expense of the SDLP.

It now looks as if Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, faced with what could be the last important decision of his political career, was keen to move more decisively and faster than he was allowed to do. The pro-Unionist Lord Cranborne-Michael Howard axis on the Cabinet's Northern Ireland Committee were apparently doubtful about handing over the role of adjudicating on marches to a new commission. The Ulster Unionist leadership did nothing to dispel ministerial fears that immediate legislation on North might just tempt the party to vote for the potentially fatal no-confidence motion that Labour will certainly consider tabling in the event of a Tory defeat in the Wirral by-election. For a mix of these reasons, therefore, the Government decided not to commit itself on the clear North recommendation that the commission should have powers to adjudicate, if necessary, on whether a parade should go ahead. Once the Government had decided to "consult" for eight weeks on a report which was itself the product of exhaustive consultation, Sir Patrick privately made unusually strenuous efforts to preserve Labour's support. And Labour was faced with an unenviable decision; Mo Mowlam did indeed urge Sir Patrick to move quickly last week. But by attacking the Government outright, as the Liberal Democrats honourably did, it might have at once alienated the Ulster Unionists, jeopardised the extremely fragile talks process, and given the Conservative Party a convenient excuse to end bipartisanship in opposition after the election, all without seeing a commission in place for the marching season.

Labour now can only press Sir Patrick - and Ms Mowlam will be meeting him soon - to move as quickly as possible in appointing the commission so that an incoming government can legislate immediately to give it the powers North wants. But the portents are not good.

If the general election isn't until 1 May, the sharply adversarial climate generated by the local authority elections in Northern Ireland three weeks later could make immediate legislation difficult even if Labour wins. It would be a brave politician who would make Drumcree 1997 the first critical decision for the new commission, without it being tested earlier in the marching season. The threat that would confront an incoming Labour government could yet be a repeat of last summer's events.

And the report is eloquently factual on the trail of devastation left by Drumcree. You can only measure the financial costs; but those numbers themselves testify to the human suffering that underlies them: pounds 10m in police overtime; pounds 25m in criminal damage claims; pounds 4.5m shortfall in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive costs of purchasing houses "which the occupants have been obliged to leave following the tensions of the summer" and a "dramatic" increase in the number of families homeless as a result of intimidation. At the weekend Dr Mowlam tried to give an incoming Labour government, if there is one, a little more leeway in the peace process, by appearing to hint in an interview with the Dublin Sunday Tribune that it might impose slightly less prohibitive conditions on Sinn Fein entering all-party talks. But the problems are piling up.

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