The Irish Times reports on the continuing failure to reach a settlement on devolution in Northern Ireland. Given the critical importance of these talks though, it may be prudent to give into the demands of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and radically revise the current policy on parades.
The DUP have very little incentive to agree on a date for devolution currently, especially given the upcoming elections in the UK. It is politically impossible for their leader, Peter Robinson, to concede this issue without looking extremely weak – unless he can sell it to his people with a minor victory. The other parties to the talks need to accept these political realities.
The situation so far: Sinn Féin are accusing their partners in government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), of reneging on commitments made concerning devolution of policing and judicial powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. But the DUP claim they never committed to a specific date, and are refusing to do so until the Parades Commission is abolished.
The Parades Commission arbitrates disputes over contentious parades by Loyalist orders through predominantly Nationalist neighbourhoods. It has a pretty decent record to date, and each year there are fewer and fewer incidents. Its members are selected by the Northern Ireland Secretary, and they have the power to restrict or regulate parades at their relative discretion.
Given that the Northern Ireland Secretary is decided by the Prime Minister of the time, it is fortunate for the last few years that Labour have maintained a very balanced view of affairs in the North and acted as a neutral arbitrator. However, this could all change with upcoming elections and the real possibility that the Conservatives may come into power. Their leader, David Cameron, will almost certainly be reliant on the Unionist parties of Northern Ireland to support his government. Thus, there is strong potential that the next Prime Minister may be compromised – as evidenced by Cameron’s recent ‘secret’ talks with Unionist leaders.
It’s unlikely that David Cameron would do anything radical or stupid to disturb the relative peace and progress in Northern Ireland today. But it is plausible that he may make commitments of support and sympathy. Even if he does act in good faith, Nationalists in the North may lose faith in his neutrality on the less substantive issues. Thus, instead of remaining recalcitrant in the face of DUP demands, perhaps Republicans should ask themselves: Is the Parades Commission really worth keeping?
There is a severe lack of democratic accountability on its members – not unheard of in Northern Ireland’s political landscape, but not desirable or excusable here. There is simply no reason to believe that the Northern Ireland Executive is incapable of making selections for a radically revised Parades Commission, in consultation with all parties and interests in the Assembly. A reconstituted mechanism to regulate parades in the North could be traded off to the DUP for a settlement on devolution, along with perhaps other concessions on issues such as the Irish Language Bill.
Given that all parties to the current talks want to entrust policing and judicial powers in the Northern Ireland Executive, it’s clear that the political landscape has changed sufficiently to permit bipartisanship on at least those issues of critical importance. If devolution is so important to Sinn Féin, why can’t they think outside the box for a solution that all parties can agree to?
Inspired by conversations with Ed Davitt.
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