Brendan O'Neill has never worn a bowler hat and sash, but he thinks that the Orange Order has got a point about New Labour's 'authoritarian' Parades Commission
Mo Mowlam's marching orders
'The Parades Commission is an authoritarian and draconian body: it is contrary to the principles of civil liberty and it will undermine democracy. There is nothing for us in this legislation and we reject this kind of thinking, which allows our faith, tradition and culture to be treated with such contempt.'
George Patton, executive officer of the Orange Order, was more purple than orange when I spoke to him just after the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, unveiled plans for the new and improved Parades Commission to take responsibility for resolving disputes over contentious marches. 'Great', says a furious Patton, 'yet another unelected quango to tell us how to behave'.
The Parades Commission was born out of a review set up by the Tory government in August 1996, following disturbances during Northern Ireland's marching season. But the Tories procrastinated over implementing the review's recommendations, published in January 1997. Under New Labour's Mo Mowlam, however, the Northern Ireland Office has gone all out to empower the Parades Commission and force through its recommendations.
'If only New Labour would procrastinate as well', dreams Patton. 'But with them its been a case of "how quickly can we force through this legislation, how quickly can we undermine civil liberties, how quickly can we regulate the people of Northern Ireland?". With New Labour there is no compunction to do the right thing, no concern about freedom and liberty.' So what are the recommendations which have got even the Orange Order sounding off about civil rights and democracy?
Recommendation number eight says that 'the period for the submission to the police of notice of a parade should be extended from not less than seven days to not less than 21 days'. Patton points out how such a ruling will have serious consequences for the right to protest:
'If we have to give three weeks notice every time we want to protest about something there will be no point. The Parades Commission is supposed to be looking at the problem of traditional parades where they clash with other communities, but this ruling will have no effect on traditional parades at all. Everyone knows when the Orange Order will be marching because our parades are on set dates each year and have been for over a century. The three weeks ruling will not affect us one iota, but it does represent an infringement of people's civil liberties and maybe even the end of the right to protest.'
Not content with telling people where and when they can march, the Parades Commission also wants to tell them how to behave when they are marching. Recommendation number 25 says that 'a code of conduct should be introduced covering the behaviour both of participants in a parade and of protesters', and recommendation number 27 advises that the code 'should have an appropriate statutory basis'. The code would cover marchers' general behaviour ('be polite and courteous at all times'); dress ('no paramilitary-style clothing'); refreshments ('alcohol should not be consumed prior to, or during, a parade'); music ('hymn tunes only, no party tunes'); and flags and banners ('should not depict any scene which could reasonably be perceived as threatening, abusive or insulting').
Patton describes the code of conduct as 'absolutely farcical'. 'I believe in peaceful protest, but I also recognise that parades can provoke passion. One minute you might be marching peacefully through a rural setting and the next you are on somebody's street and somebody is shouting abuse at you. But how will a code of conduct with statutory powers help? Are we going to be approaching policemen and saying, "Excuse me officer, that gentleman over there was rude to me and I think you should arrest him"? This is crazy.'
The Parades Commission will also outlaw dissent. If you do not like having to give the police three weeks notice about a march, or being told what to wear and what language to use, there is little you can do about it. Recommendation number 21 says that 'a new offence should be created to penalise the conduct of individuals who set out deliberately through force of numbers or threat of disorder to contravene the legal determination of the Parades Commission, in defiance of its authority'. So if you do not like what the Parades Commission says, tough.
'This is really the stuff of George Orwell's nightmares', says Patton. 'I would have difficulty accepting rules and regulations of this kind if they were being proposed by a politician. But at least you can vote against a politician and send them packing. With the Parades Commission there is no comeback: you either do as they say or you are in trouble.'
As you read this article I know what you are thinking: yes, the Parades Commission is authoritarian, but what right does the Orange Order have to talk about civil liberties? After all this is the organisation which was founded in 1795 with the sole purpose of intimidating Catholics and Irish nationalists. For the past 70 years the Orange Order has played an important role in defending the sectarian set-up in Northern Ireland and in ensuring that Catholics were denied their basic civil rights. As one who has always opposed the anti-democratic and sectarian nature of political life in Northern Ireland, I too think it is a bit rich for the Orange Order to come out in defence of civil liberties now that its parades are being curtailed. But I still won't support the Parades Commission.
It is not the case, as some would have us believe, that the boot is now on the other foot: that the Parades Commission will provide Catholics and nationalists with the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and lord it over the Orange Order for a change. The target of the Parades Commission is not contentious Orange parades per se, but contention itself and anything which smacks of a controversial political viewpoint. This becomes clear when you look at the issue of flags and emblems.
In a statelet like Northern Ireland, where there has been a conflict over sovereignty, a flag can be a powerful political symbol. Under the Flags and Emblems Act (1954) the old Unionist regime made it an offence to fly the Irish tricolour. The draconian law was enforced with vigour, as on the infamous occasion in 1964 when, prompted by the Reverend Ian Paisley, 50 RUC officers trashed a Sinn Fein election office in West Belfast to remove a tiny Irish flag, provoking the worst riots seen in Northern Ireland since the 1930s.
The aim of the Flags and Emblems Act was clear: to suppress a particular political tradition, Irish nationalism, seen as an unacceptable threat to the Unionist establishment. The new Parades Commission, on the other hand, wants to outlaw all flags and emblems which are 'likely to cause offence'. Where the bigots of the past wanted to outlaw one particular brand of politics, the Parades Commission wants to do away with conflict, controversy and contention: the very lifeblood of the political process.
You can be sure that the more controversial the political viewpoint, and the more passionately it is held, the more likely it is to be deemed 'threatening, abusive or insulting' by the Commission. This is why the Orange Order can appear as the major victim of the Commission's recommendations: it is the Order's unabashed display of its political beliefs that the Parades Commission finds objectionable. But the Orangemen will not be the only victims. If even an organisation as historic and formidable as the Orange Order can find itself on the receiving end of such stringent measures, what chance for anybody who wants to stand up for themselves and express an independent point of view?
So welcome to New Labour's New Northern Ireland, where the only flag you can fly is a white one; where the only march you can go on is one which does not demand anything; where you can only hold political views which have been okayed by the authorities; where even the language you use and the clothes you wear will be vetted by the Northern Ireland Office. It looks like Mo Mowlam wants to transform Northern Ireland's political landscape into something resembling an inter-denominational church service, where everybody puts their political differences and interests to one side, sings ecumenical hymns and genuflects to the greater authority of bodies like the Parades Commission.
'Some people say that if both communities in Northern Ireland do not like something, then it must be good', says George Patton. 'This is the thinking behind the Parades Commission: both communities have complained about it so it must be on the right track. But think about how undemocratic and insulting that is.'
The Parades Commission does indeed see both communities in Northern Ireland as a problem, and is ready and willing to force all sides to accept its recommendations. You do not have to be a has-been supremacist in a bowler hat and a sash to be concerned about this drift in events. Anybody who values democracy and free thought should give the Parades Commission its marching orders.
Reproduced from LM issue 106, December 1997/January 1998