Keeping ahead of the marchers

The complexity of providing legal solutions to the highly contentious parades issue in Northern Ireland is one which is fast dawning on the new Labour government.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam got her first real taste of the problems surrounding the parades issue last weekend with the re-routeing of an Apprentice Boys parade away from the nationalist village of Dunloy in County Antrim. Nationalists and loyalists complained that the police had acted in bad faith and there were scuffles with both groups. There was no resolution and the problem has simply been delayed to another time – a situation which sums up the prospects for the summer marching season.

The issues in Dunloy reflect those of last year's inflammatory situation at Drumcree in miniature and give a hint of the problems ahead.

The Government has given early indications that it is determined to make early progress on resolving the parades issue as well as moves to make the police more accountable.

It plans to introduce a new Bill which will take responsibility for decisions on controversial parades out of the RUC's hands.

The planned legislation strictly follows the recommendations of the North Report on contentious parades and marches whose implementation was delayed by the previous government until after the General Election. The new Bill will implement in full the report, which had as its main recommendation that parade route decisions should be handed to the new Parades Commission.

Marchers will in future also have to abide by a code of conduct which will cover the content of posters and banners.

There will be a new offence of incitement to defy a ruling by the commission. The RUC Chief Constable will retain the right to refer commission decisions on individual parades back to the Secretary of State. Police will also still have the power to impose conditions on a parade if a “public order situation” made it impossible to enforce a commission ruling. However, the new legislation will not be ready in time for this summer's marches.

The legislation will mean that once it is introduced, the actions of those involved in Drumcree-type stand-offs, peaceful or not, will be deemed illegal and subject to criminal action and those disobeying, whether they are ordinary members of the public or politicians, will have to face the courts for their actions.

Kevin Winters of Belfast firm Madden & Finucane predicts that the proposals “have potentially far-reaching consequences – the courts could become very busy indeed”.

This, he says, is what happened in 1987 when the Northern Ireland Public Order Act was introduced to deal with the introduction of formalities for people organising parades. A glut of cases resulted. Winters adds that he anticipates that “ultimately the courts will become involved as people are charged but it is too early to say what interpretation the courts will put on these offences”.

Winters says it is more than possible that this kind of action, if taken repeatedly and without fear or favour, may lead eventually to an acceptance of re-routeing decisions and a change in the so-called “traditional” marching routes.

“Once there are a number of test cases then the courts will settle down and there will be precedents established which could well begin to sort out this problem.”