Lifting the siege? How the Orange Order dropped its ban on talks – and what it really means

Are Orangemen ready for direct talks?

Are Orangemen ready for direct talks?

IN the 1990s sectarian violence over controversial parades pushed Northern Ireland to the brink of anarchy, but throughout the period the Orange Order resisted intense pressure to enter direct dialogue with the nationalist residents’ groups that opposed its marches. Now the Order’s effective ban on talks – once an article of faith for Orangemen – has been quietly dropped. In the second part of a special series on parades, The Detail’s Steven McCaffery reports on how the Orange Order made its seismic shift, why no one noticed, and what it actually means for disputes on the ground.

WHEN the members of the Orange Order’s Grand Lodge met in a hall in the Co Armagh village of Bessbrook earlier this year, they came together to consider what was once the unthinkable.

The meeting on March 24 was called to vote on internal recommendations around dealing with the continuing parades crisis – and top of the agenda was a proposal to drop the long-held ban on talks with nationalist residents’ groups.

The Orange Order leadership, so often accused of saying `No’, agreed it was time to take a step forward.

But while observers were struck by the significance of the shift in policy, they questioned why the Order took six months to announce it.

Retracing the route taken by Orangemen over the period has revealed that while their decision may ultimately help secure progress on parading, it is unlikely to deliver an early breakthrough.

The Detail now understands that the rule change:

:: Was only narrowly passed by six votes, with 42 in favour of the change, 36 against, and 18 abstentions;

:: Allows Orangemen to enter direct talks with residents’ groups, but does not place them under any obligation to do so;

:: Grand Lodge members nervous of change were told the reform could be reviewed in a year’s time;

:: Orange leaders decided to keep the dropping of the ban out of the public eye to avoid media pressure, with the marching season about to begin;

:: Minutes of the crucial meeting show that local Lodges were instructed to contact the Order’s HQ in Belfast ahead of any future talks – but this has been explained as an offer to assist in any discussions and not, as one senior Orangeman claimed, an attempt to ensure central control or veto over talks.

And while the Grand Lodge voted to maintain its refusal to recognise the Parades Commission, it consigned the talks ban to history by redrafting its rules to read: “Flexibility be allowed over engagement at local level…”

The reform did not become public until the end of what was a divisive marching season, that saw a series of riots in republican and loyalist areas of Belfast, and soured political relations at Stormont.

During the disturbances police came under gunfire from republican dissidents at Ardoyne in the north of the city, while the role of loyalists in violence around controversial parades repeatedly came to the fore.

But beyond the political recriminations, there were signs of a wider frustration at the annual divisions over parades, including strong words from the police as reported here in The Detail.

The Orange Order leaders who met in Bessbrook may have been evenly split over their future direction, but the dropping of their ban on talks represents an important symbolic step that will move the Order and its members into new territory in 2013.

A LONG HISTORY OF POLITICS IN PARADING

The vast majority of Loyal Order marches pass-off peacefully, but the current crisis at flashpoint locations has persisted since the 1990s.

The Troubles were coming to an end by the middle of the decade, but with the emerging hope, came concern over what the future might bring.

As Northern Ireland’s political blocs prepared for negotiations, their competing agendas were played-out on the streets in pitched battles over parades.

Consecutive summers were scarred by mass rioting, road blocks, intimidation and violence that caused millions in damage and claimed a string of innocent lives.

Unionists alleged a Sinn Féin plot after residents groups were formed in a wide number of locations, often with senior republicans at the helm.

But as disturbances erupted, the wider nationalist community came to identify opposition to controversial marches with their demand for political equality.

On gable walls the slogan “No Talk, No Walk” became the mantra of a turbulent period.

In 1998 the government set-up the Parades Commission to provide independent adjudication on marches which had previously been left to police to control.

Orangemen opposed the new body, and the parades issue entered a prolonged stand-off.

THE DUP, POWER-SHARING AND PARADING

Today, however, members of Loyal Orders in many locations meet nationalists and republicans to discuss parades, even if at times they do so as representatives of their community rather than as Orangemen.

But while some claim the Grand Lodge vote is simply an acknowledgement of realities on the ground, the change in policy is nevertheless a significant break with the past.

The seeds of the change can be traced back to a number of important staging posts.

The 2006 St Andrews Agreement paved the way for power-sharing government at Stormont, to be led for the first time by the DUP and Sinn Féin, but it also included a pledge to review how controversial marches were adjudicated.

The exercise was led by former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, it involved prominent Orangeman Mervyn Gibson and senior republican Sean Murray, and released interim recommendations in April 2008.

It was the blueprint that politicians returned to in the negotiations that led to the Hillsborough Castle political deal of February 2010

Sinn Féin exited those talks having won the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont, while the DUP secured a replacement for the Parades Commission.

Peter Robinson’s party had briefed the Orange Order throughout, but at a meeting of the Grand Lodge in the early summer of 2010 it voted to reject the new proposals, ironically securing the future of the Parades Commission the Order had professed to despise.

Some senior Orangemen blamed rivalries between the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists for the political car crash.

Ulster Unionists, who refused to endorse a deal brokered by the DUP, were accused of contacting sympathetic Grand Lodge members ahead of the vote to ensure they attended the meeting – a claim the party denied.

Others dismiss the influence of political parties and attribute the defeat to strong voices within Grand Lodge who were critical of the proposed legislation which they said was too wide ranging and would only add to the difficulties faced by the Order.

Nationalists have an alternative view.

One senior republican source close to the negotiations said he believed the Orange Order ditched the Hillsborough proposals because it was the moment when, for some members, “the penny dropped” that replacing the Parades Commission would not bring an end to the regulation of marches.

The Hillsborough package dealt with the competing rights of marchers and residents, and identified the entitlement of communities to live free from sectarian harassment.

The Grand Lodge decision to ditch the plan by 37 votes to 32 became public in July 2010 and sparked shock and anger in the DUP.

The Orange Order then established a new internal committee on parades to consider the future, with the body including additional representatives from areas affected by parades disputes.

By the time its recommendations were considered by Grand Lodge in Bessbrook in March this year, the margin of `defeat’ suffered by those who supported the Hillsborough deal was overturned.

HOW THE BAN WAS REMOVED

The decision to end the official embargo on talks allows Orangemen across Northern Ireland to enter discussions with residents’ groups, even if they are perceived to be linked to Sinn Féin.

But it has been confirmed that the new policy does not put Orangemen under any obligation to do so.

The potential grounds for parade organisers refusing to talk include the existence of concerns over the history of IRA attacks in an area, especially where Orangemen may have been bereaved by republican violence.

Extracts of the minutes of the Grand Lodge meeting also point to a desire to keep the reform under wraps – if only in the short term.

The Order’s official internal record of the meeting merely stated: “A Parades Advisory Committee recommendation on how best to proceed in relation to parades issues was accepted and Lodges with an interest in parading issues should in the first instance contact Schomberg House [the Orange Order HQ in Belfast] for further information."

Critics claim details of the reform were unclear in the records of the official meeting. Many grassroots Orangemen appeared unaware of the rule change until it made headlines six months after the Bessbrook vote.

Grand Lodge sources insist the substance of the reform was to be communicated to members by District officers who attended the meeting, and there was no plan to withhold information.

But if the Order denies any effort to keep grassroots members in the dark, senior Orangemen at the Bessbrook meeting did successfully argue against making a formal public announcement of their reform.

Grand Lodge members who were concerned at the change were also told it could be reviewed in a year – which would potentially see it reconsidered in March 2013.

But there is no information that any proposal to reverse the reform is tabled at this stage and sources suggest it is highly unlikely to happen.

As it is, the policies of the Order, that once effectively banned meetings with residents’ groups, were changed at Bessbrook to read: “Flexibility be allowed over engagement at local level with engagement assisted by county officers if desired.”

Senior Orangemen express hopes that the delay in announcing the change could provide the time and space for possible future talks to develop.

But the Order is now facing questions over its handling of the episode, after a marching season rocked by republican and loyalist riots that cost police £7.4million and left 92 officers injured.

No one can say whether earlier confirmation of the lifting of the ban would have eased pressure.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP have said they were unaware the ban had been removed, despite their involvement in political wrangles around parades that stretched across July, August and September.

It is understood, however, that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) was unofficially informed of the policy change around the beginning of the summer.

In addition, police have confirmed officers became aware of the shift at some point during the marching season, as they encouraged rival sides to reach at agreements on parades disputes.

There is no allegation that either organisation withheld the information, but it illustrates how news of the Orange Order vote gradually leaked-out.

That process came to a head at a press conference at Orange Order headquarters in Schomberg House on September 26 which was organised to discuss the massive parade taking place three days later to mark the centenary of the Ulster Covenant.

Senior Orangeman Mervyn Gibson was asked a wider question about the prospect of marchers ever talking to nationalist residents’ groups.

His answer, which detailed the Order’s policy change, sparked the first headlines over the issue.

Mervyn Gibson - Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order

Mervyn Gibson - Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order

Orange Order press conference at Schomberg House September 26 2012
THE FUTURE

It was, perhaps, fitting that the rural setting of Bessbrook was the venue for the ban to fall away.

If there is a divide inside the Orange Order it is between the country lodges and urban areas, especially Belfast, where loyalist paramilitaries’ continued presence around parades controversies is a serious issue for a movement keen to re-establish its credentials as respectable and responsible following two decades of annual discord.

The months that followed the rule change have witnessed a number of significant developments.

In the Co Antrim village of Crumlin, Orangemen brokered an accommodation with a nationalist residents’ group that successfully defused tensions on July 12 – though The Detail understands the move related to local considerations rather than the Grand Lodge decision.

The Apprentice Boys of Derry, who have secured parades in the city for years by brokering deals with republicans, recently met with the Carrick Hill residents’ committee.

There was a further signal of movement when Orangemen from Portadown District, home of the Drumcree dispute, recently met Sinn Féin’s deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in a development believed to have been initiated via the DUP.

And in its most recent statement on marches along Belfast’s Donegall Street, the Parades Commission expressed regret that Orangemen again failed to meet Carrick Hill residents, “despite there being no inhibitors to this dialogue taking place”.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, the Order will face greater pressure than ever in 2013 to hold direct dialogue with residents in areas where it meets resistance to its marches.

Leading republican Sean Murray said the significance of the reform would be measured against the willingness of the Orange Order to meet nationalist residents.

“It is not words we want to see, it’s action,” he said.

“We have had these false dawns. We are very sceptical, but hopefully we are wrong.”