Marching legislation can be salvaged, parties insist

New legislation on defusing tension over controversial marches in Northern Ireland can be salvaged despite an Orange Order decision to reject the plan, senior politicians said today.

New legislation on defusing tension over controversial marches in Northern Ireland can be salvaged despite an Orange Order decision to reject the plan, senior politicians said today.

The DUP and Sinn Féin negotiated the marching blueprint as part of their wider political talks earlier this year that helped stabilise the power-sharing government led by the two parties.

The legislation will replace the Government-appointed Parades Commission with a new system focused on securing local agreement in the relatively small number of locations where parades remain contentious.

The Orange Order's ruling Grand Lodge voted to reject the proposals last week, but senior members are due to meet again on the issue.

Politicians today also said that trade unionists angered that the new legislation's rules on parades could affect the wider right to free assembly would also be dealt with as part of the consultation phase on the main body of the reforms, which ends today.

Sinn Féin's John O'Dowd said it was important that loyal order marchers, and nationalist communities affected by parades, discussed the issue to avoid tensions.

"Dialogue and engagement between local residents and the loyal orders is central to this," he said.

"In some areas a resolution to a parading issue may well be the acceptance of an alternative route. Out of thousands of parades only a very small number are contentious.

"This legislation is an attempt to find a better way forward."

He added: "I am confident that at the end of the legislative process if all political parties and interested groups approach this matter with a positive and constructive attitude then we will have in place a better framework for dealing with the issue of contentious Orange Order parades."

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said only a fraction of the Grand Lodge members eligible to attend its discussions had been present when it voted to reject the new legislation.

He criticised Ulster Unionist politicians who had dismissed the DUP/Sinn Féin plans, claiming they had yet to propose an alternative way forward, or an alternative means of securing the dismantling of the Parades Commission, which has been a longheld Orange Order goal.

Mr Donaldson said he believed there was support for the new way forward within Orange Order ranks.

The Alliance Party broadly welcomed the new proposals but joined trade unions, plus groups such as Amnesty, in expressing concern at proposed restrictions on impromptu public gatherings of more than 50 people.

Alliance justice spokesperson Stephen Farry said: "The impact of the current proposals would create considerable restrictions on a wide range of activities.

"One notable example that would have fallen foul of these proposals would have been the spontaneous cross-community religious service that was held in Antrim on the morning after the brutal murder of two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in March 2009."

The Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) raised the same concern.

Its director Mike Ritchie commended the DUP/Sinn Fein efforts to secure stability, but raised a number of issues highlighted in the CAJ's submission to the consultation.

"The key problem is the widening of the definition of events to be brought within the ambit of the legislation to include a static gathering of 50 or more people," he said.

"While it is welcome that there is an emphasis on a human rights framework in the consultation documents, this is not spelt out anywhere."

He added: "While it is important to recognise the positive political developments that underpin the legislation, respect for human rights should not be sacrificed for such political interests."

The hardline unionist Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party today said the new proposals were deeply flawed.

It said that the right to parade should be declared, and it added: "In terms of foundational principles the legislation ought to specifically declare that where a parading route is historically traditional such will be a strong material consideration in reaching any determination.

"Likewise, in pursuit of the concept of shared space, the legislation should specify that arterial routes which are substantially non-residential should carry a statutory presumption in favour of parading."

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