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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 16:59 GMT
Will commission walk the walk?

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

On the surface, unionist politicians are repeating their long-standing opposition to the Parades Commission.

They argue that changing the faces on the quango is insufficient, and that changes to the law underpinning the commission remain required.

Orangemen marching
Two members of the Orange Order now sit on the Parades Commission

That said, the appointment of two commissioners who are both members of the Orange Order, including one Don Mackay, who says he intends to walk in the disputed Drumcree parade, appears an obvious attempt to bend over backwards to build bridges with the unionist community in general and the loyal orders in particular.

Certainly the worried reaction from Sinn Fein and nationalist residents' groups underlines the tilt towards unionism.

The former SDLP MP Joe Hendron has taken a place on the new commission.

But this is hardly a substitute for a member actively involved in opposing contentious parades, which might have been considered a direct balance for the inclusion of David Burrows, former district master of the Portadown Orange.

Maybe no well-known residents spokesperson applied.

Nationalist applicants

After all, unlike David Burrows, the Portadown Garvaghy residents steered clear of involvement in previous commission initiatives, such as last year's seminar in South Africa.

However, it's a matter of public record that nationalists with more of a "green" track record than Joe Hendron, such as the former Belfast mayor Martin Morgan, did apply but were not shortlisted.

The government has stopped short of assuaging unionist demands for new legislation.

Instead the Northern Ireland Office line is that the new commission should put a renewed emphasis on mediation and dialogue, and that this ought to be enough to restore trust on all sides.

The idea is that both the new commissioners and their authorised officers should get out on the ground more, "walking the walk" as well as talking the talk.

Over time they hope to do themselves out of a job by promoting local deals, and thereby avoiding the necessity to hand down judgements from on high.

This sounds good in theory but could prove fraught in practice.

In the days before the commission was created, the late Mo Mowlam applied her considerable charm to winning friends and influencing people involved in marching disputes.

Mo Mowlam
Mo Mowlam was directly involved in marching disputes

But after a well received visit to the Garvaghy Road, during which she promised to tip the residents off in advance about any decision she made, she then felt she had no choice but to push that year's Orange parade down the road.

She did not inform the residents in advance in order to preserve the security forces' element of surprise and the short-lived honeymoon was over.

Mo Mowlam's experience makes you wonder whether any honeymoon for the new look approachable commission will outlast its first judgement on a contentious march.

Members of the outgoing commission warn that difficulties may lie ahead if both roles, seeking mediation and making determinations, are handled under one roof.

Will the opposing sides divulge their full hand to a mediator if they think the go-between will report all the details back to those who have the power to make a ruling on a parade or a protest?

Fresh start?

This was the reason Sir George Quigley suggested a clear split between a mediating body and a determining commission. But the government has chosen not to go down that route.

The success or failure of the new commission may depend not only on its own performance but also on the context in which it works.

A shift in Sinn Fein's attitude towards the police could significantly alter the atmosphere surrounding marching standoffs.

So could a change in the attitude of the Orange Order.

They are due to elect their grand master this month, and it will be interesting to see whether Robert Saulters marches on or if the order, like the commission, opts for a fresh start.

Parades boss wants dialogue focus
01 Dec 05 |  Northern Ireland
Parades body 'cannot solve issue'
07 Nov 05 |  Northern Ireland
Policing parade trouble cost 3m
31 Oct 05 |  Northern Ireland

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