Post by Dr Dawn Walsh, Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), The University of Birmingham.
While the summer of 2014 was marked by a surprisingly quiet ‘marching season’ the issue of parades remains a controversial one in Northern Ireland. The difficulties and disputes around Parades by the Loyal Orders, predominantly the Orange Order, can be seen as a cultural manifestation of a constitutional conflict, which has been managed but not resolved by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Migration patterns have resulted in a situation where a number of these parades now pass through or skirt nationalist areas if they follow traditional routes. This is unacceptable to the local residents who see them as sectarian and intimidating. However alterations from these traditional routes are equally unacceptable to marchers who view the parades as an integral part of their culture and re-routing as an infringement on their human rights.
The Independent Parades Commission was set up by the British government in direct response to increasing tensions around parades, especially in Drumcree. Its primary role is to arbitrate as to whether parades should be subject to restrictions or re-routing where there is significant local opposition. The choice to delegate this responsibility to a third party was part of a wider pattern where independent commissions and groups were employed to navigate issues that were obstacles to the peace process. However the IPC differed from many of these. It was asked to act as an arbiter and make legally binding decisions, whereas most such groups simply made recommendations.
Perhaps predictably, its decisions have been contentious. Significant elements of the unionist community associated with ‘Orange culture’ have been vehement in their criticism, dismissing it as biased when it has made decisions with which they disagree. Similarly nationalist have been quick to dismiss it when they disagree with a decision. Many of these criticisms have a political element and we can better understand whether or not the IPC enjoys legitimacy is we look more analytically at the nature of the criticisms made.
The delegation of substantial powers to the IPC, as an unelected body has been subject to condemnation with some unionists politicians and the Orange Order arguing that it is a fundamentally ‘undemocratic quango’. However advocates of delegation have claimed that the IPC’s decisions have been superior to the previous (or suggested alternative arrangements) and that broadly speaking there has been a decrease in disruption surrounding parades since the IPC’s inception. This claim of ‘output superiority’ is strongly refuted by the Orange Order, which claims that even when the marching season is calmer this is despite not because of the IPC.
The largest source of condemnation and support for the IPC rests on the processes it used to make its decisions. Supporters have highlighted that the commission is able to take a wider range of factors into consideration including the potential impact of a parade on community relations. They argue that this is preferable to the previous situation where the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had decided on whether parades should be re-routed looking solely as ‘public order’ concerns. The IPC has issued a large number of documents, including guidelines, which it uses to make decisions. These guidelines are aimed at incentivising local accommodation and responsible behaviour from marchers and those who object to parades. However opponents of the commission have argued that there is little clarity as to how these guidelines are applied, that there is inconsistency, and that there is a lack of transparency.
The question of the procedures and processes of the IPC has also been raised in relation to the independence and impartiality of the group. A letter by Prime Minister Tony Blair to the group in 1998 asking them to delay publication of a report in case it should negatively affect the outcome of the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement cast doubt on whether the commission was independent from government. There have been controversies over the membership of the body, with court cases being taken over whether it has been ‘representative’ of the wider community as was set out in the legislation setting it up. And the most stringent criticism of the IPC has been that it is biased. Unionist politicians and the Orange Order have accused it of being carrying out a ‘jihad against the loyalist people’, ‘having a republican agenda’, and being ‘tinged with green’. The strength of this feeling within significant sections of the unionist community has led many to believe that the IPC must be replaced, and this issue was part of the failed Hass’ talks. If a new system for managing the contentious parades is to be designed in Northern Ireland the experience of the IPC can provide some important lessons. It shows the benefit of taking such sensitive decisions out of the hands of the police or politicians, allowing them to continue to police or govern without being tarnished by the issue. It also shows the potential for an independent body to apply a broad range of criteria when making decisions, and to use the decision-making criteria to incentivise better behaviour by all those involved. However it also shows that such independent bodies are open to charges of lacking a democratic mandate, that processes must be clear and transparent, and perhaps most importantly; that in a divided-society the representativeness and impartiality of the group is vital.
This blog presents the arguments from a paper in Irish Political Studies, available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07907184.2014.942291
Dawn Walsh is an Elevate Fellow (Irish Research Council International Career Development Fellow – co-funded by Marie Cure Actions) at Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS), University of Birmingham.