A body set up to review the working of the parades commission which adjudicates on contentious parades in Northern Ireland is about to recommend abolishing that commission. Former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, leading that body, may be crediting us with more democratic potential than we really have.
At first it seems a completely crackpot idea to do away with the parades commission.
Remember the long anguish with which it was created. And the enormous problems it was created to solve.
Fr Oliver Crilly and the Rev John Dunlop called witnesses and deliberated and produced an enormous report.
The key problem was that deadlock over parades was generating enormous violence and threatening to destroy the entire peace process.
One important principle was that both sides to a dispute should talk to each other. The Orange order didn’t like that, because it didn’t trust that the protesters were bona fide representatives of communities – and it wasn’t happy anyway with the idea that any community could object to them walking the Queen’s highway.
Equally important was the principle that the decision on banning the parade should be taken out of the hands of the police so that the issue would not be decided on the greater threat of violence. If the decision was the chief constable’s all you had to do, to get a parade banned, was to guarantee that he would have a greater headache if he let it go ahead.
Solution: an independent parades commission of sensible and dispassionate people, making determinations on reasonable grounds that could be defended.
And then in time, everybody would come round to dealing with it.
And, sure enough, last year we had the most peaceful marching season for since the start of the troubles.
The big deadlock at Drumcree has not been resolved, but the sting has been drawn from it.
Peter Hain, who was fond of creative, if illegal measures, put Orangemen on the commission, disregarding the appointment rules there, as he had done when appointing the first interim victims Commissioner.
But you would think, generally, with parades, this is a time to leave things as they are, and trust that no major troublesome forces would want to use parades to produce major social disruption, not least because the two great disruptive parties are now governing us.
We haven’t seen Paddy Ashdown’s report yet, but the leaks say it proposes that there should be a separation of the mediation and adjudication roles.
That idea was first raised by the Rev Roy Magee, one of the first members of the parades commission, who stood down when he spotted this precise weakness. Marriage guidance counsellors can’t be divorce court judges, at least not for the same clients.
But there are suggestions that decisions should be taken now by councils, and behind them an adjudication panel set up by the office of the first and deputy first minister.
Currently the first and deputy first ministers are facing a split on the victims commission. If the DUP swings to the idea of changing the guidelines for the job, to rule out paramilitary activists as victims, they will probably have to readvertise the post.
A great precedent for co operation.
You can see what has happened.
Paddy Ashdown has concluded that Northern Ireland can function like a healthy democratic society.
Well, that’s the conclusion that Chris Patten came to when he was charged with reforming the police service and what did we get from that? We got the Democratic Unionist Party assenting to a name change for the RUC and the dropping of a cherished royal symbol from their badge.
Look to that example, and your hopes might be raised.
Alternatively, look to the botch up over appointing a victims commission, and you think that our less elected representatives have to do with parades, the better.