PARADES confrontations sparked one of the most tense summers in years, but there are signs the ground is shifting around an issue that has proven impossible to resolve. The Orange Order has dropped its long-held ban on talks with nationalist residents, the future of the Parades Commission is back on the agenda, and there are also signs police are now asserting their position. In the first of a series of reports on marching disputes, The Detail’s Steven McCaffery finds a police service seeking to challenge the inevitability of parading’s cycle of violence.
A LEADING police officer has said it is time for a fundamental shift in the public’s “acceptability of violence” against officers at controversial parades in Northern Ireland.
After a summer when 92 officers were injured in clashes around marches, Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said the public was “de-sensitised” to murder bids on riot police that would cause shock in Britain or the Irish republic.
After developments including the arrest of bandsmen over breaches of parades commission rulings, he urged politicians and community leaders to start immediate talks on marches or risk “waking up” to the further problems next summer.
But ACC Kerr also challenged the public’s acceptance of violence at controversial parades.
“I do think there is a broader societal issue about the extent to which communities have become de-sensitised to the acceptability of violence against a police officer, and looking at a shield line of police officers, or a line of Land Rovers, and just saying `well that’s fine, if it’s just police stuck in the middle again, 100 injured’,” he said.
“It just doesn’t seem to have the impact in Northern Ireland that it would have in Dublin or London or Manchester.
“Every single one of those police officers who leaves their home and their families should have a reasonable and legitimate expectation that they will get positive support from the communities – and when they are injured in the line of protecting those communities – they’ll get active support and vocal support from those same communities after the event as well.”
He added: “Sometimes that’s not as vocal, or as active, as it could or should be.”
The vast majority of the nearly four thousand parades held each year pass off peacefully.
And the scene has been transformed from the era of mass violence and near anarchy that once surrounded disputes including the Drumcree parades stand-off in Portadown, Co Armagh.
But after nearly two decades of annual disturbances, and despite the historic progress in ending the Troubles, the potential for violence over parades at flashpoint areas remains high.
Policing the marching season this year cost £7.4million, with officers also bearing a heavy human cost.
Twenty officers were injured following the Orange Order’s July 12 parade past Ardoyne in north Belfast when police lines were attacked by nationalist rioters and by dissident republicans who fired ten gunshots
On August 25, seven officers were injured during brief clashes outside St Patrick’s Catholic church when trouble broke out after bandsmen defied Parades Commission restrictions imposed after the Young Conway Volunteers flute band was deemed to have played sectarian music at the scene in an earlier march.
But days later a total of 65 officers were injured, with seven hospitalised, during loyalist-orchestrated riots in the nearby Carlisle Circus area.
Assistant Chief Constable Kerr said the summer ended with some positive signals of the potential for future compromise.
But he warned politicians and community leaders against parking the parades issue over the winter months.
“There is a real risk in this, in that if we don’t keep talking about this, and looking at the positive things that came out of September and out of this summer, that we’ll get back round to next May, look surprised, and realise we’ve only a couple of months to resolve it.”
It is now known that the summer mayhem came against a background of behind-the-scenes moves in which the Orange Order shifted on to more conciliatory ground by dropping its ban on talks with republican residents.
But the scenes of ferocious violence laid bare the need to convert policy shifts into progress on the streets.
With millions of pounds spent on policing parades, and with nearly 100 officers injured in the process, ACC Kerr warned against taking such violence for granted.
He said officers wear protective riot gear weighing three stone – equipment which he said had probably saved lives this year – when police suffered “broken bones, serious concussion, neck and back injuries”.
The senior officer said the violence directed at police during the height of the summer disturbances – when officers were targeted by gunfire, petrol bombs, bricks and masonry – could “never be categorized or defined as anything other than attempted murder”.
In the immediate aftermath of the September riots at Carlisle Circus Mr Kerr made a forthright call for politicians to defuse tensions ahead of the then looming September 29 Covenant centenary parade.
Was he reflecting frustration within police ranks at the time?
“Partly it was a frustration, and an articulation of that frustration within policing, that we were more used to seeing community leaders and some politicians – not all but some politicians – who seemed more interested in blaming the other side and in engaging in a very partisan form of a blame game, instead of saying `How do we resolve this issue? How do we stop the violence, how do we stop the attacks on the police service?’.
“So yes, part of it was just a need, on the part of policing, to say `It’s not acceptable to attack the peacekeepers’."
Observers have detected a stepping-up of police pressure for politicians and community leaders to tackle marching tension.
The ACC warned against the parades issue slipping-off the agenda, before “everyone wakes up next June with this rather surprised look on our face, and say ‘well, it’s only a couple of weeks until we deal with the same contentious parades again’.”
He added: “Why do we end up in this situation every single year?
“And how do we stop that process of de-sensitised communities, who think it is acceptable to go out and have 16, 17, sometimes 13 year olds, and men in their 40s arrested as well, who think lobbing a brick or a petrol bomb or a piece of masonry at a police officer is an acceptable manifestation of community frustration.
“It is not and never will be.”
ACC Kerr said: “If people choose to pick up a brick, they are going to have to accept the consequences.
“There are now custodial consequences, when those cases go to court, because if they get convicted, every one is facing a jail term.
“People need to understand the consequences of this. There is no such thing as recreational rioting."
The police service seems less willing than ever to tolerate annual parades violence, and is making its voice heard at a time when the mood is shifting in other quarters.
In the next part of The Detail’s special report on parades, we look at how the Orange Order is facing a potential turning point in 2013.