Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland


  The Mediation Network for Northern Ireland is an independent voluntary organisation, established in 1991 to promote the use of mediation in disputes in Northern Ireland and to support creative responses to conflict here. We receive core funding from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council as well as grant aid from various trust funds. We engage in the practice of mediation and in training individuals and organisations in six sectors:

    —  the community;
    —  public bodies;
    —  the churches;
    —  the justice system (including policing);
    —  politics;
    —  private business.

  The Mediation Network became involved in the parades conflict in 1995 when we made a contribution to the resolution of the first Drumcree crisis. Thereafter, we stayed engaged with the problem in Portadown and in other parts of Northern Ireland. Our advice to the Independent Review of Parades and Marches, chaired by Professor Peter North, was largely reflected in its report of 1997. We subsequently gave advice in the setting up of the Parades Commission in 1997 and, at its request, recruited and trained a team of twelve Authorised Officers to act on behalf of the Commission across Northern Ireland in its efforts to secure local accommodations to various parade disputes. For the past three years we have retained responsibility for the supervision of this team of part time workers, though this is due to pass to the secretariat of the Parades Commission in April, 2001. We have also given occasional advice to the Parades Commission regarding the practice of mediation and its place in the parades conflict.

  In December, 1999, I was asked by the then Commission to prepare an analysis of the various attempts at mediation in the Drumcree dispute. I presented my report in January, 2000.

  Aside from our involvement with the Parades Commission, the Mediation Network has independently addressed the parades conflict in various parts of Northern Ireland, with financial assistance from the International Fund for Ireland. This has involved the maintenance of relationships with individuals on opposing sides of the parades conflict. Since May 1999, the Mediation Network has been facilitating a forum on behalf of Newry and Mourne District Council in response to disputed parades in Newry in recent years.


(a)  Difficulties so far

  Thus far, the Parades Commission has presided over three "marching seasons". However, its effectiveness has been hindered by a number of factors:

    —  A body of citizens administering a conflict with age-old battle lines is still a relatively new concept in Northern Ireland society. Most Commissioners come new to their task and take time to master their brief.

    —  Certainly within its first two years, senior figures within the Northern Ireland Office lacked confidence in the idea of a parades commission. The Commissioners were viewed as new to the subject, compared to experienced officials and police.

    —  Similarly, senior police officers were wary about the contribution of well-intentioned lay people to the management of a serious public order problem, which traditionally had been handled by the most seasoned police commanders.

    —  Especially in the first two years police and NIO officials continued to work at the problem, thereby maintaining alternative channels and vehicles other than the Commission.

    —  The Loyal Orders were suspicious of the Parades Commission from the outset. Their own proposals for a more wide-ranging body addressing all aspects of cultural division had been rejected by Government, despite expectations to the contrary. Therefore the Orders viewed the Commission as a body with hostile intent towards the parading tradition. Upon its inception, the Loyal Orders boycotted the Commission, leaving it to administer a conflict in which its capacity to learn about one side was greatly inhibited.

    —  Through much of the three years of the Commission's existence, the Government has been driving intervention initiatives. These have been led or stimulated by civil servants who have no background in the field of conflict intervention nor mediation training. The Government's interest would appear to be heavily influenced by its political agenda of stabilising the peace process. However, such political considerations, while a legitimate concern of Government, have been widely divorced from the realities of life on the ground, where the dynamics of communal conflict are not always in step with the needs of the political process.

    —  The Parades Commission has been too deferential to successive Government-led initiatives. It too often has been content to adopt the role of benign bystander during long weeks of attempted mediation. Yet, whenever such initiatives have failed, it has fallen to the Commission to take unpopular decisions. Consequently, many in the Loyal Orders have viewed the Commission as a negative entity whose interventions have invariably meant bad news.

    —  The Orange Order's policy of non-involvement in direct mediation has led to the parades conflict proceeding at a slow pace. As the body responsible for encouraging mediation, the Parades Commission has had a difficult field to plough.

(b)  The Idea of the Parades Commission

  The role of the Parades Commission could be summarised as involving two tasks:

    —  managing the parades conflict

    —  assisting its eventual resolution.

  Given that the parades conflict is a real and enduring phenomenon, there are four conceivable ways to deal with it.

    (i)  Leave it to the police — however, police responsibility for governing the parades conflict would totally inhibit the prospects of a new beginning in policing, as envisaged by the Patten Report.

    (ii)  Elect a committee of public representatives — however, placing such an issue in the hands of the local politicians would divide them along predictable lines and exacerbate traditional divisions.

    (iii)  Leave the responsibility with the Secretary of State — but a Secretary of State would require critical advice from civil servants and, therefore, controversial decisions would lack transparency and legitimacy.

    (iv)  Appoint a panel of citizens, who are publicly identifiable, accept their appointment as a civic duty and who base their decision on publicly accountable criteria.

  The idea of a Parades Commission emerges as the least worst option. Whether or not one agrees with its various decisions, the concept of a body which encourages agreement but in its absence, acts as final arbiter, appears to be reasonable.

(c)  Resolving the Parades Conflict

  The Parades Commission should not be held responsible for resolving the parades conflict. Such responsibility lies primarily with those who are parties to the conflict: the Loyal Orders and those who oppose them.

  The Parades Commission's civic task is to manage the problem in the absence of agreement and to act as a catalyst for the creation of conditions which are more conducive to agreement. In this respect the Commission's role in promoting education about the parading tradition holds much potential. However, much of that potential will remain unfulfilled as long as the Orders decline to utilise the Commission.


(a)  The Place of Mediation

  Attempts at mediation have been a regular feature of the parades story since the first Drumcree crisis of 1995. The term has certainly become much more widely known in the public consciousness. However, there is still little understanding and, indeed, much misunderstanding about its true meaning.


  Mediation assists communication between individuals or groups in conflict in order to manage or overcome estrangement and effect positive change.


  The intention of mediation is to effect positive change in situations of conflict. The most positive change would be a resolution of the conflict. However, conflict resolution is often a distant ideal which can only be eventually reached by a long series of small incremental steps. Each step or, even, "mini step", represents a positive change.

Civic Task

  Therefore the civic task of mediation is:

    —  to assist citizens to manage or resolve particular disputes;

    —  to assist citizens to work towards a fair and agreed social order.

Parading and Social Order

  In Northern Ireland there are parades disputes either because the relationship (or social order) between paraders and opponents has broken down or because that relationship was unhealthy in the first place. The task of mediation is to assist citizens to restore or to create a social order within which parades are not matters of contention. This is a long process of relationship building.

  Unfortunately there is a public expectation for more immediate outcomes. However, "quick fix" solutions are superficial and, while they may address short term needs, they invariably paper over enduring and resurgent problems.

  While one could debate the causes of the parades crisis, it remains the case that this is a problem which grew out of cross-generational conditions and it may take at least a generation to resolve it.

(b)  Expectations of the Parades Commission

  Against this background, it will be important that more realistic expectations of the Parades Commission should be fostered. The Government's review of the Parades Commission (February 2000) referred to the use of human rights legislation as a kind of quality control mechanism. It also suggested that the Commission should increase awareness of mediation and urged greater clarity around Commission decisions.

  Over the past three years, the team of part-time Authorised Officers have worked hard at establishing trusting relationships with all sides. It is certainly true that mistakes have been made and that in some situations Authorised Officers are distrusted but, overall, they have gone about the business of relationship-building as the necessary foundation for a longer term resolution of the problem. They remain deeply motivated to help effect positive change.

(c)  The Future of the Parades Commission

The Authorised Officers

  The Mediation Network recently advised the Parades Commission to take full responsibility for its Authorised Officer team. Therefore supervisory responsibilities will be handed over to the Secretariat in April 2001. It is hoped that a closer working relationship between the Authorised Officers as practitioners and the Parades Commission's officials as administrators will enhance the Commission's sensitivity to the different circumstances which exist in different localities with parade disputes across Northern Ireland.

  However, the capacity of Authorised Officers to effect positive change will be largely determined by whether the Loyal Orders engage with the Parades Commission.

  Otherwise, their endeavours towards local accommodations will continue to proceed at a slow pace.

Understanding Mediation

  Greater understanding of mediation remains a pressing issue. It is too often confused with negotiation. While negotiation may have its place in addressing the parades problem, the two activities should be more clearly demarcated. Negotiation seeks a deal around a particular dispute. Mediation addresses the wider context within which particular disputes arise.

Defining the Parades Conflict

  The Parades Commission should seek to define the problem more clearly. A simple exposition of the issues would be more helpful to public understanding than some of the assumptions which underpin much of the public debate. The public would benefit from the Commission offering more precise definition.

  In my view, a more helpful definition is that the parades conflict involves the breakdown of social order regarding parades.

  Therefore, the Commission's intention could be usefully stated as restoring consensus regarding the parading tradition in Northern Ireland. Such a policy could appeal to all sides in the dispute and stimulate fresh thinking among the general public.

Dimensions of the problem

  The parades conflict has a number of dimensions:

    —  religious: there are theological issues which require discussion across the churches.

    —  political: the political aspects of the problem are quite properly agenda items for elected representatives.

    —  public order: requiring attention by police and by citizens, given the Patten vision of Community Policing.

    —  social and economic: requiring attention by public bodies and by commerce.

    —  communal: requiring attention from community activists.

  The Parades Commission could usefully generate discussion and offer support to those concerned with each of these dimensions so that, at all the essential levels of society, a more focused discussion could take root in both public and private discourse.

The longevity of the parades conflict

  It is important to remember that establishing a new consensual social order between the traditions of Northern Ireland regarding parades is a long term process, stretching beyond the tenure of the current Parades Commission.

  Therefore the idea of a Parades Commission is of great importance as a model of civic leadership whereby a group of citizens accept the onerous task of making decisions about parades in the absence of sufficient agreement between the sides.

22 December 2000

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