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13 June 2014

Twaddell – Could the road be walked together?

Twaddell – Could the road be walked together?

Photo credit: Adam Bishop via Creative Commons

There has been a stand-off at Twaddell Avenue in Ardoyne in North Belfast since 12 July 2013. The focal point is a make-shift 'camp' consisting of a caravan and a huge number of flags on a small derelict plot just off a roundabout. The cost of policing this one protest at Twaddell is estimated to be over £40,000 per day and the total cost hit £9 million last month.

The camp is manned twenty four hours a day by local loyalists. Their protest is against a Parades Commission determination which allowed the Ligoniel Orange Lodge to march into the city last Twelfth but not to return on the same route that evening due to the risk of violence. Local nationalist and republican residents oppose the parade passing through the area. In the past number of years this road junction has become an interface for rioting and violence.

The camp organisers say they won't stop their protest until the parade has completed its return march. Astonishingly, there has been a similar stand-off and 'camp' at Drumcree near Portadown for the last 16 years since 1998.

In 2012/13 there were 4,449 parades, of which 2,569 were loyalist/unionist and 175 republican/ationalist. There were 1,705 parades from community, social and charity organisations. Only 225 were deemed to be contentious and the Parades Commission made only 165 determinations.

The Parades Commission is an independent semi-judicial body. It hears evidence before it makes decisions and determinations. It has no power to ban a parade but can add restrictions to it. The PSNI is then tasked with enforcing Parades Commission determinations.

One difficulty for loyalist/unionist communities is that the Orange Order and subsequently the wider loyalist community, generally refuse to engage with the Parades Commission. The Parades Commission can only make determinations based on the evidence they hear but obviously very little evidence is heard from these parties. And so when a determination appears to go against this community, a sense of validation is added to their decision not to engage with the Commission and further distrust is perpetuated. Given that around 57 per cent of all parades are unionist/loyalist this is a significant problem.

There is clearly a breakdown in the parading system and the recent Haass document included some proposals for change but, as we noted at the time, the root problem of distrust and broken relationship remains.

There is another difficulty in this parading space where culture, politics and religion collide. For many parades are simply a celebration of tradition, culture and music. For many they are socio-political;an expression of national identity, sovereignty and historical victory. However when parading becomes a 'religious right', those who follow Jesus have to walk this road very carefully.

The Orange Order, Independent Loyal Orange Institution and the Royal Black Preceptory all describe themselves as Christian Institutions. It is a bold and costly decision to carry publicly the name of Christ whether by institution or individual. There is no biblical mandate to parade nor prohibition against it. People have the freedom to express their cultural, political and religious affiliations within the law. The question for followers of Jesus is always a (Great Co-) missional one - are these actions a worthy witness to Jesus and His Kingdom? May I suggest we need an urgent, humble and sensitive conversation on the place of loyalorders within the mission of the local Church?

Back to the specifics of the stand-off at Twaddell Avenue. The costs are mounting both financially and relationally every day. The options seem to be either the parade takes place and the unionists/loyalists 'win' or the parade does not take place and the nationalists/republicans 'win'. Is there a different way of looking at things? For instance, it could be said that this road is at the same time in the United Kingdom and on the island of Ireland. So are there any other more creative alternatives?

Things can change. We see it with the recent welcome offer from the Orange Order to have conversations with the parishioners of St Patrick's Church after trouble outside the church last year. But dare we dream even more radically?

Imagine if, drawing from the Christian values of grace, humility, generosity, loving your neighbour and your enemy, the loyal orders invited the republican residents to walk with them? Imagine if in a reciprocal spirit of generosity, and drawing on principles republicans hold dear like equality and diversity, the residents took up the offer. Loyalists walking down a British road, republicans walking down an Irish road –together. Both groups walking the road together because of their principles or even their protest, but either way supporting the freedom of the other. Imagine if republican residents and the loyal orders walked the road together, not just metaphorically but literally.

But then that's probably impossible, like the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order speaking at the House of the Oireachtas, Ian Paisley sharing political power with Martin McGuinness, Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, or the Queen visiting Ireland on a State visit and speaking Irish.