Members of Protestant marching organisations in the North welcomed the promise of a new system for overseeing parades in today’s deal, but Catholic residents’ groups expressed concerns over any changes.
The Orange Order, Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys groups who organise thousands of parades across the North each year had lobbied for the change which unionist politicians have sought in the Hillsborough agreement.
The deal sets out a timetable for establishing a system to replace the independent Parades Commission which currently rules on controversial marches in the relatively small number of locations where tensions still run high.
The agreement outlines plans for a greater focus on local accommodation on disputed parade routes where Catholic communities object to marches.
The Orange Order said: “The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and the Royal Black Institution will now examine in detail the aspects of the political agreement involving public assemblies and parades.
“Our initial reaction is that it is a positive step forward and we are pleased that people have been focusing on the issue of parading.
“Everyone must now work to find the best regulatory system surrounding public assemblies and parades and we remain committed to playing a continuing and constructive part in that.”
The most explosive parade flashpoint has been the Drumcree march in Portadown Co Armagh. Marchers demanded to follow a traditional route along the predominantly nationalist Garvaghy Road and tensions over the march sparked violence clashes in the 1990s that spread across the North.
The Parades Commission has routinely steered the parade away from the Garvaghy area in recent years and suggested an alternative route, but while tensions have subsided considerably the issue remains a sensitive one.
The Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition (GRRC) in Portadown which represents nationalists in the area said it would have to study the new proposals and test them against human rights legislation.
“At no stage, during the past 12 years has the Orange Order in Portadown been denied the right to freedom of assembly. At no stage during that period, has any outright ban been imposed upon Orange Order parades in Portadown,” the group said.
“Furthermore, and very tellingly, at no time has the Orange Order in Portadown ever sought to legally challenge the validity and lawfulness of any route restrictions imposed, as the Order is only too well aware that such restrictions are compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Finally, it is important that any proposed new processes are not permitted to disregard or whitewash over the past record, or the violent and sectarian, intimidatory nature, of contentious marches or to disregard the very tragic costs and real human traumas which were inflicted upon minority communities like ours in Portadown as a result of those marches.”
A spokesman for the Apprentice Boys of Derry which has successfully brokered local deals on its city centre parades in the predominantly nationalist city, welcomed the prospect of a new beginning.
They said: “The Apprentice Boys of Derry welcome the proposed new improved proposals for parading. The prize of an agreed regulatory and adjudication system is one which all sections of the Northern Ireland community should welcome.
“We are heartened that our experience in Londonderry was of some assistance to those who worked for this outcome and trust that parading will now be seen as a culture rather than a public order issue.
“As ever our approach will be constructive and supportive. The Apprentice Boys of Derry look forward to what promises to be a new beginning to parading in Northern Ireland.”