28 April 2006

Orange chiefs talk to Dublin

Belfast Telegraph

Historic parades meeting with Irish government

By Chris Thornton
28 April 2006

Orange Order leaders have held a groundbreaking meeting with the Irish government as part of their campaign to get the Parades Commission replaced.

A delegation from the Order's Grand Lodge and other marching organisations met officials from the Dublin government at Schomberg House, the Orange headquarters in east Belfast, just before Easter.

Leaders of the Orange Order, Royal Black Preceptory and Independent Orange Order briefed the Irish civil servants about their joint strategy for dealing with parades. They are also due to meet the SDLP next week.

Drew Nelson, the Order's Grand Secretary, said: "This is probably the first time in our history that we've been talking to the nationalist community."

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Nelson described the talks as an "amicable enough meeting".

"We met civil servants from the Irish government, from the Department of Foreign Affairs," he said.

"The main aim of that discussion was to explain to them why we thought the present legislation was flawed and to convince them that we were genuinely attempting to seek a long-term resolution and better system of regulating high impact public events.

"We made our position clear and we explained to them to the best of our ability why we thought the present system was flawed.

"They listened, they asked some questions and they put some points from the nationalist perspective which we answered."

George Dawson, the DUP MLA who is Grand Master of the Independent Orange Institution, also took part in the meeting.

"Our feeling is that they are not without influence in the nationalist community," Mr Dawson said. "We feel it's important to get everyone on board."

The three marching organisations have been preparing their joint strategy since last year and recently began a series of briefings - meetings so far have included Secretary of State Peter Hain, Irish officials, Protestant church leaders, and the Alliance Party.

However, the Orange Order's Grand Lodge is maintaining an official ban on contact with the Parades Commission - in spite of two Orangemen joining the body - and Sinn Fein.

"We're in the mode of explaining to as many people as possible, people of influence in Northern Ireland society, why we think the present legislation is flawed," Mr Nelson said.

"Essentially at the minute we're willing to discuss and talk to everybody except Sinn Fein.

"We're not at the minute talking to Sinn Fein because of their history, because of their attitude towards violence, because we have hundreds - literally hundreds - of our members in their graves, murdered by the republican movement. So it is not on our agenda to talk to Sinn Fein."

The loyal orders have revealed few details of their joint strategy, but Mr Nelson, a Dromore solicitor, said they do not envisage decisions on parades returning to police. The Parades Commission was created to cushion police from the blame for particular parades being blocked or going ahead.

"We see the Parades Commission being replaced by a more equitable body or bodies and working within a fairer legislative framework to handle the whole high impact public events problems," he said.

"The police would be part of that, but we don't foresee them being part of the decision making process.

"I want to say that the debate within the institution is much more mature than it has been as to how to tackle the problem of partial legislation, and that we've had a very long think about it over the past few months."

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