North Belfast: Unionists call for inquiry into 'parades impasse'

Peter Robinson called Theresa Villiers to set up a legal inquiry into marching issues in north Belfast

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The NI secretary has said she would meet unionist and Orange Order leaders, to discuss their call for a commission of inquiry into the issue of parades.

Earlier, unionist leaders said the inquiry should look into the "parades impasse" and wider issues.

They made the call at a news conference to explain what they termed a "graduated response" to a Parades Commission ruling in north Belfast.

Theresa Villiers said the government would "look carefully at the proposal".

The Parades Commission, last week, ruled that the Ligoniel Orange Lodge should not make a return parade along a stretch of the Crumlin Road that separates unionist and nationalist communities on 12 July.

It is the second year in a row that such a ruling has been made.

Several nights of rioting took place after the same parade was stopped from returning along the road last year, with scores of officers injured.

On Thursday, unionist leaders and senior Orange Order officials signed a pledge calling for peaceful protests over the 12 July.

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton said the joint statement was "responsible and showed leadership".

Unionist leaders and senior Orange Order figures held a news conference on Thursday Unionist leaders and senior Orange Order figures signed a pledge during a news conference on Thursday
Statement

The sight of unionists queuing up to sign a pledge evoked memories of the 1912 Ulster Covenant against Home Rule, albeit on a rather less dramatic scale.

If the joint unionist/Orange commitment to lawful protest helps ensure a peaceful 12 July, then it won't be just the PSNI Chief Constable who breathes a sigh of relief.

Peter Robinson says the unionist campaign will last long after the Twelfth weekend. That's where the quandary lies for Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.

The parading inquiry demanded by unionists has already been opposed by nationalists. They view it as an attempt to undermine the Parades Commission, which has legal responsibility for marching disputes.

The Northern Ireland Office's initial response is intended to buy time. If the government does not offer the unionists their parading inquiry, they are promising consequences at every political level - council, assembly, Westminster and Europe.

Does that mean a repeat of the first minister's previous resignation threats or some other form of disruptive action? If so, the unionists aren't spelling out the details. It may be the autumn before it's clear whether this is all smoke and mirrors or a serious challenge to the stability of the devolved institutions.

At the news conference on Thursday, First Minister Peter Robinson read from an agreed statement from the combined unionist and Orange Order leadership.

He said: "The combined unionist parties call upon the secretary of state to establish a time-bound commission of inquiry with the necessary legal powers and resources to examine the Crumlin Road parades impasse and the wider issues it represents.

"This is a further part of our graduated response strategy, and follows on from our withdrawal from the leaders talks, ending contact with the so-called Parades Commission and the steps outlined by the Orange Institution.

"In addition, the parties are agreed that at every level - council, assembly, Westminster and Europe - the denial of cultural expression, resulting from republican violence and threats of violence, will have a consequence determining how our members at each of these levels of government will participate."

The Orange Order also said that each parade on Saturday would stop for six minutes, the length of time they say it would take for the north Belfast parade to return along the contentious stretch of the Crumlin Road.

It was also announced that there will be a "number of peaceful protest parades" around Northern Ireland on Saturday evening, but these will not be held in "contentious areas".

Edward Stevenson, grand master of the Orange Order, said: "There has been unanimous backing for a reinvigorated campaign against the inept Parades Commission."

Unionist and senior Orange Order figures signed a pledge calling for peaceful protests of 12 July Unionist and senior Orange Order figures signed a pledge calling for peaceful protests on 12 July

He added that the leaders were calling for "effective, peaceful and lawful protest".

"If your view of protest is violence, or if you seek to cause agitation within unionism, then please stay away from our protests," he said.

'Positive'

Orange Grandmaster Edward Stevenson said those that want violence should stay away from protests

Chief Constable George Hamilton said: "I am heartened by the agreed statement in terms of the protest activity that has been called for.

"What we have got here is some leadership from unionists and the Orange institutions, and that is a good thing.

"It is positive that those people in public life, with civic and political responsibility, channel protest in a way that ensures that any activity is within the law."

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said: "We have always made clear our willingness to consider all practical options to resolve the situation in north Belfast.

"I welcome the efforts being made to try and find a way forward.

"I am happy to meet unionist leaders to discuss their proposal as soon as possible."

On Wednesday, the Orange leadership had requested a meeting with the prime minister after meeting with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

They said they wanted to express their view that the current system for regulating parades in Northern Ireland was undermining democracy.

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