Thursday, 30 October 2008

Lose/ Lose

The planned military parade and protests in Belfast city centre this weekend have already been blogged about extensively elsewhere, and may continue to be depending on how events unfold, but regardless of the outcome the unfortunate thing is that there will be no winners.

The best case scenario will see both parade and protests pass off peacefully, with everyone heading home quietly afterwards for their Sunday dinner. But even then, the community strain wrought by this debacle has done no one any favours. At a time when people are hoping that powersharing at Stormont can be brought back on track, the two biggest parties seem further apart than they have been for a good few years.

On the one hand we have the First Minister Peter Robinson saying: “It would be an absolute disaster if the MoD allowed themselves to be bullied by Sinn Féin and those people that they bring on to the streets. I think it is hard for people to envisage how we can devolve powers for policing and justice, when one of the parties in the Assembly behaves in such a reckless way as Sinn Féin are proposing to do." Tellingly, he added: “I'm not sure that the Deputy First Minister has control over events in West Belfast."

Meanwhile, his party colleague and DUP deputy leader, the Minister of Finance and Personnel Nigel Dodds, commented: "The bravery of these soldiers [who dealt with a security alert in West Belfast] is in stark contrast to the cowardly actions of republicans who benefit from the Army's role protecting innocent people but have not a word of praise for them, rather hurling vile propaganda in their direction.”

On the other hand, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said: “I hold the British Secretary of State responsible for the controversy that has arisen around the British Army’s military parade in Belfast on Sunday. While the British Ministry of Defence may be oblivious to the sensitivities involved, surely Shaun Woodward should have realised that Sunday’s event is ill-advised.”

So where does this leave us? Well, the Parades Commission has rejected an SDLP call to look again at its decisions over Sunday’s planned events. The SDLP has subsequently called for nationalists to avoid going to either the military parade or the protest. If the MoD cancels its parade, unionists will consider it a defeat and sop to republicans. If Sinn Féin opts to call its supporters off the streets, it will be seen as a sign of weakness after much grandstanding and in the face of other planned protests by smaller groups such as éirígí, the IRSP and Republican Sinn Féin.

Of course, things could get a lot worse than a political spat. As we saw on O’Connell Street when ‘Love Ulster’ attempted to march and during the loyalist riots in 2005, it’s impossible to keep control over those who seek to use parades and protests to unleash violence on the streets. There are bound to be people on both sides of this argument who will use events on Sunday as a channel for civil disorder.

Nigel Dodds has called for UTV and the BBC to broadcast live from the parade on Sunday- precedent would suggest that they’ll end up filming a lot more than just a few dozen people walking along a street in uniform. Let’s hope precedent is contradicted on this occasion.

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