IT TOOK a public warning by PSNI Assistant Chief Constable William Kerr that someone would be killed if steps were not taken to end the rioting in Belfast for politicians to come to their senses. Three nights of violence at Carlisle Circus, arising from the flouting of a Parades Commission ruling, injured 65 police officers and increased sectarian tension.
Mr Kerr was particularly concerned that, if politicians did not intervene, violence would intensify around an Orange Order parade to mark the centenary of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant later this month.
Commemorations can be beneficial, if used sensitively and within a broad consensus, to encourage a healing of old wounds and divisions. They can also be employed for less benign purposes that serve to divide, rather than unite. The practice of parading and commemorations in Northern Ireland has tended to fall into the latter category. Despite that, both communities are entitled to mark their particular historical events, provided they keep within the law.
During the dog days of summer, with Stormont in recess, members of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party competed for public support on issues ranging from same-sex marriage, to abortion and parading. Prompted by the Orange Order, both parties rounded on the Parades Commission. The commission’s ruling on a Royal Black Institution parade in Belfast was condemned as “anti-Protestant” by a range of unionist politicians, including First Minister Peter Robinson. Rising sectarian tensions and a breach of that ruling led to rioting. Residents within the Shankill area, which produced many of the rioters, have legitimate grievances. High levels of unemployment and social disadvantage persist. They feel the benefits promised by the Belfast Agreement have passed them by. Diverting such feelings of economic dissatisfaction down a parades-related cul-de-sac is extremely dangerous.
When the DUP triumphed in last year’s Assembly elections Mr Robinson spoke of the need for teamwork and joint community action in promoting future prosperity and industrial development. That need has increased as the economy has weakened. Despite that, traditional attitudes were manipulated. There can be no prevarication on this issue. Both communities will have to accept the rulings of the Parades Commission if peace is to be sustained. Political parties have a special duty to give leadership and uphold the law in that regard.