Parades, peace talks and the lessons learned

104 of my colleagues were falling down round me /

THE battle to defuse parades disputes in Belfast has provided lessons that have been used in trouble spots around the world. The Detail’s Barry McCaffrey examines one of the past successes, at a time when some fear that the tension caused by dissident republican violence and the row over the Union flag risks eroding progress.

FOR more than a decade the issue of Loyal Order parades and counter protests at Ardoyne has caused some of the most significant damage to community relations in Northern Ireland.

A controversy over last year’s banning of the July 12th parade along the Crumlin Road led to loyalists engaging in more than 200 days of protest.

In recent years dissident republicans have also been blamed for a series of gun and bomb attacks on the PSNI during parade stand-offs at the north Belfast flashpoint.

The Detail spoke to a former senior police officer who, along with republican and loyalist community workers, was credited with ensuring that the flashpoint parade was free of serious violence for a three year period.

For the first time republicans, loyalists and the former senior police officer talk about the leadership decisions that were taken in a bid to build trust and allow former enemies to ensure that parade violence was averted.

However, amid renewed tensions, one senior loyalist warns that the trust which was built up over the last 15 years is in danger of being eroded by a breakdown in relations resulting from the issues of flags and dissident violence.

THE TALKS THAT DISRUPTED PARADE VIOLENCE

In 2005 Gary White was PSNI District Commander in charge of North Belfast.

July 12th that year saw 104 police officers and dozens of civilians injured during some of the worst parade violence ever witnessed in the city.

“Yes, they were dark (days), not least because as the senior officer on the ground having had 104 (colleagues) hurt, is not a good place to be.”

The retired senior police officer now confirms for the first time that the violence which erupted during that summer led to a series of back channel discussions which would result in the North Belfast parading season being virtually violence-free for the following three year period.

“Even during that summer of 2005 what was interesting was that some people were starting to say that sometimes the darkest hour comes right before the dawn.

“I had interactions with some people who were saying, clearly: ‘This can’t happen again.’

“Those people were coming from a range of backgrounds, a range of constituencies. To some extent, that gave some hope, albeit that it didn’t really feel at the end of the summer of 2005 that hope was an emotion that you would be putting much stay in.

“Slowly but surely those discussions developed, facilitated quietly and sensitively by people who deserve enormous credit but who still remain behind the scenes.”

Within 12 months those confidential discussions led to a situation in which only a handful of police officers were needed to accompany the Loyal Order parade past Ardoyne shops in 2006.

“There were five police officers who actually led that parade past the Ardoyne shop fronts, and almost an absolute absence of violence.

“In a very short period of time we went from gloom, doom and despair, to some sense of hope for the future.”

The former District Commander refuses to downplay the personal risks taken key players on all sides to ensure there was no immediate return to the violence of 2005.

“People became leaders in so much as they were prepared to step up, to be counted and to step ahead perhaps, from their own community. When I say community, basically I mean the constituency that they represented, whether they were a community leader, someone who was involved in politics, or involved in an organisation, the police included.”

The initial discussions proved personally demanding for those being asked to challenge the status quo of their own community.

“It was very difficult at times to reach out into the unknown. This was the first step, to begin to have conversations with people, who previously they wouldn’t have been talking to.”

The bedrock of those discussions and ultimate success of the talks was built on trust, however Gary White admits that confidence did not initially come easily.

“There’s no doubt that the whole issue of trust was absolutely central to a lot of the things that were achieved, but, of course, when there is no relationships between people, trust will always be absent.

“I would love to be able to claim there was a big strategy, certainly on the part of people like myself within the police. I don’t think there was. It was basically inching forward, step by step, and some things just seemed intuitively the right things to do.”

While there was no agreement on the overall issue of parades, the discussions that went on behind the scenes did prove successful.

“During the next three years, 2006 to 2008, there was almost an absence of violence in and around north Belfast connected with parades.”

TAKING RISKS

While leadership was needed on all sides there was also a need to take chances.

“For me taking risks was really important. That wasn’t about being reckless; it was about a calculated risk.

“Just as the police took risks, so did many other people from within the Loyalist/Protestant community, within the Republican community. In some respects that’s what made it work. It was a process of negotiation, and it was about people doing things that previously hadn’t been done before.”

The Detail can reveal that some of the key figures who were at the centre of those cross-community discussions in 2005 have now been involved in the writing of a new policy document aimed at understanding policing in a divided society.

Many of those involved, including Gary White, have since retired, and are involved in bringing lessons from the peace process in Northern Ireland to other conflict zones around the world.

In recent years Gary White has visited countries such as Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Egypt, Pakistan and Kenya to share his expertise on policing in divided communities.

He acknowledges that there are some who are cynical about Northern Ireland being used as a model for other conflicts.

However he believes the peace process can provide vital lessons for others.

“The international community is interested in what a lot of people who have been through this process have to say.

“That’s because we are a society still slowly coming out of conflict.

“They are interested in how we have done this

“Because in many conflicts around the world they haven’t been able to make the progress that we have made.

“Whilst our peace process is not perfect, it’s just that, it’s a process. Overwhelmingly, we seem to be in a much better place now than we were 20 years ago.”

Police reform often plays a key role in any conflict resolution scenario.

“We went through that and people are very interested to hear what happened.

“I do think there are lessons to be shared. In many respects specifics can’t be transferred, but the principals in which you approach things can be.”

Video: "The transformation of policing did not happen overnight and it's not yet complete" /

John Loughran has worked with the Intercomm peace building agency on interface projects in North Belfast since the 1990s and has been involved in discussions relating to community policing and parades.

“The PSNI and the transformation of policing in the north hasn’t only happened overnight. It’s been a ten or 12 year process. It’s not yet complete, but we are much further down the line now than we are than where we actually started. And central to all that is about relationships.

“It is about trust, but it’s also about delivery. And I think when we look at issues around the peace process, the touchstone issue around policing that was so contentious in the past, is now one of the success stories.”

Commenting on the difficulty of relationships often breaking during tense negotiations, he said: “There’s often been blockages and breakages. Some of it has been facilitated by breakdown politically.

“But I think in recent times, you know, people are very much committed to the processes of dialogue.

“The emphasis now is no longer on personal relationships but on processes.

“That in many ways has insulated a lot of the kind of good-relations work, the peace-building work at a grassroots level from external challenges, but also breakdowns in personal relationships.”

A NEED TO REFOCUS ON THE FUTURE

North Belfast loyalist John Howcroft has been heavily involved in discussions with republicans and the PSNI to avoid community tensions over parades.

“I think relationships were the key,” he said.

“The centrality of relationships to peace development has always been a key to unlock progress.

“Building relationships sounds an easy concept, but the difficulty is that it involves a sense of knowing another person, on a genuine human level.

“Trust doesn’t just appear, it’s something that is developed over a period of time.

“There was a huge investment in terms of relationships, the social capital, the people, getting to know each other at that level.”

Insisting that republicans, loyalists and the PSNI had all taken risks to breakdown communal barriers, he said: “Mandela said that peace isn’t built with your friends, it’s built with your enemies.

“People on all sides began to do that.”

However the senior loyalist warns that recent issues of dissident attacks and the row over the Union flag has seriously eroded trust which has been built up over the last 15 years.

“There’s not the same spirit of generosity which once existed.

“The dissident issue playing out in the background is worrying, the flag protest and what happens with a constitutional symbol has created a whole new undercurrent of resentment which has really subtracted from the trust which had built up.

“Whether people can get back into that space? I don’t know.

“They need to move from a problem space, which we are currently in, and back into a solution space.

“It’s going to be conversation not confrontation.”

  • Gary White now works as Director of Operations with the Ineqe Group.