Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Parading - a deal breaker?

As Northern Ireland's political parties reportedly move closer to a deal on the transfer of policing and justice powers, one issue is said to be key to any agreement - how the contentious issue of parading will be handled in the future.

BBC News Online looks at how parades continue to be at the heart of the political problem.

How did parading become a political issue?

The parading problem came into its sharpest focus in the mid-1990s when there were a series of disputes between nationalist residents' groups and unionist cultural and religious organisations, the most well known of which is the Orange Order.

The loyal orders had been holding hundreds of traditional parades each year since the 19th century and the vast majority are not contentious. However as demographics changed, a small number of the parades were held through or close to areas which were mainly populated by Catholic nationalists.

Orange march
The Orange Order has held parades over two centuries

The nationalists said the parades which celebrate Protestant history and culture in Ireland were triumphalism. They wanted those which came near the areas they lived to be re-routed to other areas.

The loyal orders insisted that their parades were traditional, dignified and unthreatening and should be allowed to continue on routes they had taken for many years.

Nationalist parties generally supported the residents' view while unionists largely supported the loyal orders.

Over the past fifteen years, the lack of agreement on contentious parades often provoked street violence. The most well-known dispute was at Drumcree near Portadown, where the lack of a resolution provoked some of the worst civil disorder seen in Northern Ireland.

What has been done to try to resolve the problem?

Historically, disputes over parades were seen as a public order problem and a matter for the police. They would disregard the political issues and decide how the parade should proceed, purely taking into account policing concerns. As the parades become more contentious however, political pressure often meant the most contentious became a matter for the government.

The most notable example was in 1997 when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, decided that the Drumcree parade should go ahead, despite an original decision that it should not.

Nationalists, who historically distrusted the police, pressed for an alternative. In 1998, an independent body called the Parades Commission was set-up to rule on the small number of controversial parades.

Did the Parades Commission work?

From its inception, the loyal orders and unionist politicians largely had nothing but contempt for the body, refusing to recognise its authority. However its decisions were strictly enforced by the police and gradually the level of civil disorder at contentious parades was reduced.

Unionist politicians continued to believe the commission was biased and have pressed continually at negotiations for its abolition.

As part of the current negotiations over the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the largest unionist party, the DUP say they want an alternative to the Parades Commission.

Nationalist mural
Nationalist residents' groups have opposed Orange marches

What is the alternative?

Following the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, it was agreed to ask the international diplomat and former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown to conduct a review. His team was intended to include the widest shade of Northern Ireland opinion.

The presence of Sean Murray, a convicted IRA man, and Reverend Mervyn Gibson, a former Deputy Chaplain of the Orange Order, was indicative of the attempt to involve the strongest opinions on both sides of the debate in order to secure a lasting resolution.

In the summer of 2008, the Strategic Review of Parading came back with what it described as interim proposals.

What were those proposals?

The review said that "local dialogue" should be at the heart of resolutions.

It said that where possible the dispute would be solved in the first instance by dialogue between those organising the parade and those objecting - local councils would facilitate such talks, if necessary.

If such dialogue fails, the highest office in the Northern Ireland Executive, the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) would appoint a mediator, drawn from a list selected by public appointment.

If he or she fails to broker agreement, OFMDFM, would appoint three adjudicators, again drawn from a publically appointed list. Their decision will then be legally binding.

What do the parties think of those proposals?

The DUP says it largely supports the interim proposals but is increasingly perturbed by the delay in the publication of the final report. It has said the parading must be resolved before the devolution of policing and justice powers can take place.

Sinn Fein has said it wants clarification on the proposals but has welcomed the fact that "local dialogue" will be at the centre of a new system.

However the party is angry that the DUP are trying to link the transfer of powers with the parading issue. It says the two are different issues and that making parades a "precondition" is unacceptable.

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