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 justice system (including policing);
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.
1. THE OPERATION
(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
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
(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
(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.
Therefore the civic task of mediation is:
to assist citizens to manage or resolve
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
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
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.
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
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
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
social and economic: requiring attention
by public bodies and by commerce.
communal: requiring attention from
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
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