That one of the selling points of the Hillsborough Agreement – the replacement of the Parades Commission by the end of the calendar year – is now not going to happen reflects the problematic nature of trying to replace something that has worked and is working.
There can be little doubt that the parading environment has changed for the better since the establishment of the Parades Commission in 1998. Anyone with a memory of the days of barricades, shut-downs and simmering threat that epitomised summers from the mid-1990's through to the early 2000's cannot fail to agree on that. It would be churlish not to give the Commission at least some credit for this. In an environment of continual review, attempts to undermine it, constant legal challenge and persistent criticism, the Commission has worked well, provided certainty and consistency, undertaken initiatives to develop trust and build relationships in key areas.
Politicians and community representatives have also contributed hugely to the better environment. However, if you don't put a microphone near them, many of those same representatives from across the political divide will also say that the Parades Commission has been largely fair and effective.
A challenge for unionists in framing any new legislation is to replace the Parades Commission with a system that better protects the right of people to parade, while remaining invulnerable to challenge especially legally. The clumsiness of the proposed legislation suggests there is some way to go because it provides many more potential pressure points for judicial review than the existing framework.
A challenge for republicans is to replace the Commission with a system that understands and responds to the needs of residents in areas where parades have an impact. This could reflect the need to consider the scale and nature of a parade, its intent and its effect locally, all within a rights-based approach. There is some way to go here as well.
It is a challenge for all that the framework also needs to promote the responsibility of both parade and protest organisers in bringing such civic events into public and often shared space, and utilising public resources, including roads and policing, that taxpayers maintain. The newly released Code of Conduct for parades and protests falls short in specifying non-acceptable behaviour related to the current code and as such may open up conflict in locations that have seen progress in recent years. In the proposed legislation the understatement, to say the least, of organisers' responsibilities and their need to engage with those affected by a parade, and of issues such as the proportionality, intent and effect of a parade, suggest there is in these respects also, some way to go.
There has been backtracking before now, and rightly so. The huge response from the voluntary and community sector, and trades unions and lobbies such as the vintage cars association already had led to an acceptance that parts of the legislation needed to be re-written. However, even that reflects the complexity of the issues. Would it be equitable for any other organisation not to notify a civic event or parade in the same way as the Orange Order or a trades union? Might these events still not use public space and require policing presence? Will the new legislation as it stands currently simply put a lot more pressure on the police to regulate and manage a more complex set of arrangements without the support of a body like the existing Parades Commission?
So, other than for political necessity, does the proposed legislation advance the management of parades, making it better than what we already have? The need for greater local political accountability and oversight is hugely positive and important. Taking greater political responsibility on a highly sensitive and contentious issue such as parading is critical to a new political dispensation here. If there is agreement on the management of parades which works, it will reflect a major step forward in political maturity.
But whatever system there is for managing parades and protests by 2012, it needs to be based on an improvement in the existing provision, and be squarely based on good governance. That is important in itself. But the parading framework also needs to withstand challenge not just within the existing political environment but the sort of more hostile environment that could exist in the future. The existing Parades Commission has withstood significant and acute challenge, and continued to provide constructive leadership around parading – any new system needs to be able to do so as well.
The proposed legislation was to have no review for five years. Maybe a real challenge for political maturity would be to extend the life of the existing parades framework for five years allowing time for the Parades Commission to further build publicly the respect that many people from all backgrounds have for it privately.
Peter Osborne is a former Commissioner with the Parades Commission, a former councillor at Castlereagh and a specialist in community relations and cohesion.