– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 5th October 1998.

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Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:30 pm, 5th October 1998

Thirty years ago a group of people, mostly though not all from the Nationalist community, proposed to parade peacefully into the city of Derry to protest about a system of widespread discrimination based on religious belief and political persuasion. On this day, exactly 30 years ago, that parade was banned. Why? It was after all a peaceful protest, a parade into a city with a Nationalist majority ruled by a Unionist minority.

It was banned because of a mindset which held that Nationalist rights were limited by the extent to which they were acceptable to Unionists. It was banned because of a tradition based on an inequality of power between Nationalists and Unionists, a tradition whereby it was taken for granted that marches by the Loyal Orders and associated with the Unionist tradition had the absolute right to march in town centres, Nationalist areas and Unionist areas. At the same time parades associated with the Nationalist community had to be confined to Nationalist areas.

The Civil Rights march, exactly 30 years ago today, challenged that supposition, and what ensued exposed to the world the system of deep discrimination and injustice which lay at the root of that mindset. It is ironic that 30 years later, at a time when political leaders, many of them coming to terms with the need for change, with the need for equality and for a mutual acceptance and respect for each other’s traditions, that the parade’s issue is still here to haunt us, so to speak. Indeed, it has the potential to inhibit and to damage the difficult process in which we are engaged. However, it is not surprising because the parades issue symbolises the very inequality that has lain at the heart of Northern Ireland’s troubled history.

Drumcree is not about a 15-minute march down the Garvaghy Road; it is about a demand for change and equality on the one hand and the fear of change and the resistance to that change on the other.

The 5 October march in Derry was a protest about real grievances as the Cameron Commission subsequently confirmed. It was not part of a plot to subvert the state. In the same way, the conflict in Portadown arises from a real sense of grievance born out of the experiences of a small Nationalist community in a large Unionist town, a community to which it has been clear over the years that their rights must be restricted and not equal to those of the majority.

The Portadown District of the Orange Order failed to recognise that there is no such thing as an absolute right, that all rights must be exercised with due regard for the rights of others and that all rights carry responsibilities. It is in a situation such as that at Drumcree that a conflict of rights can only be resolved through dialogue and accommodation.

I have no doubt that the sense of grievance felt by sections of the Unionist community about the Drumcree situation is real and strongly felt. Undoubtedly the changes to the status quo proposed by the Good Friday Agreement are seen by some as threatening. It is a pity that an agreement which represents a balanced approach to the rights of both Unionists and Nationalists, an agreement at the core of which lies the principle of consent, continues to be represented by some as a threat and a sell-out.

To portray the re-routing of parades, as has been carried out this summer, as an attack on the cultural heritage of Unionism is a gross distortion of the reality. Of the 3,242 parades that were notified this year — I repeat: 3,242 — only 2% were restricted, and those restrictions were imposed in areas where dialogue had either failed or had not even been attempted.

The emphasis this year has been on the Drumcree situation and the running sore of Portadown. On a more positive note, and there have been positive notes, I have no doubt that the courageous voice of the Rev William Bingham speaks for many in the Orange Order who have been appalled at the events surrounding Drumcree. The small turnout at recent demonstrations sends a clear message as well.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will not as I have not got much time left.

I read in today’s ‘Irish News’ that a Church of Ireland Archbishop and Bishop and 150 clergymen have publicly voiced concern and deep unease about the events surrounding the Drumcree church service in recent years. That is a welcome development as well.

Over the summer potential flashpoints have been defused from Derry to the Ormeau Road and Dunloy where common sense prevailed, where both residents and Loyal Orders, to their credit, reluctantly accepted unpalatable decisions in the interests of the common good. And that was true of both sides in those areas.

Another positive note to have been struck recently was the decision by the Ballynafeigh Orange Lodge to hold a seminar at which Nationalist, Unionist and Loyal Order views were expressed. I would encourage that. And a further step forward would be to engage in dialogue with the local residents.

However, I will return briefly to the situation in Portadown and to the fact that the Orange Order still refuses to enter into dialogue. Stand-offs, demonstrations and confrontations continue. We saw the consequences of that in 1996 and 1997, consequences with which we are all too familiar. This year we witnessed the surreal spectacle of Army reinforcements being helicoptered into a field at Drumcree in support of the RUC.

The relatively small Nationalist area of Portadown was surrounded by steel barriers and protected by troops and police. A visitor from Mars might have concluded that the third world war had begun. The stand-off and vicious nightly attacks on the security forces went on for over a week, all because a group of men persisted on returning from church through an area where they were not welcome rather than along the alternative route from which they had come. Where was the sense of proportion?

Photo of Mr Norman Boyd Mr Norman Boyd UKUP

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. There is an implication that the Orangemen were responsible for attacking the police, which is absolute nonsense.

Photo of Ms Brid Rodgers Ms Brid Rodgers Social Democratic and Labour Party

Regrettably, it has not ended there. For three months now the Nationalist community in Portadown has suffered intimidation and harassment. It has even been suggested by a representative of the Orange Order that the harassment could stop if they were allowed down the Garvaghy Road. The implication of that is clear.

Three Catholic-owned businesses in Portadown have been burnt down and others have been threatened; all of the town’s traders have had their trade seriously affected; and a young policeman lies in hospital with serious brain damage. He has a young wife and three children, and he is fighting for his life.

Who gains from such a situation? Not the Nationalist nor Unionist communities; not the traders; not even those who continue to protest and demonstrate; and certainly not Frank O’Reilly — the young policeman — or his wife and baby and two other children.

Surely it is time to stand back and apply common sense. It is time for the local leaders of Unionism to support publicly the need for dialogue. Surely the experience of the previous three decades is enough to prove to us all that violence and confrontation compounds our differences and ensures that everyone pays the price.

We are together here today, but our differences have not gone away. I hope that during the talks some of us have come to a better understanding of each other. We have agreed to disagree in some areas, but we have committed ourselves to working together to resolve our remaining differences. None of us is less true to himself for doing that. Entering into dialogue is not giving way on fundamental principles; it is a recognition of the reality that conflict cannot be resolved any other way.

The failure to break the deadlock over Drumcree must be addressed. It is unacceptable and intolerable that a small, unelected group of men in Portadown should continue to hold both communities to ransom simply because they will not enter into dialogue.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP

I wish that I had the time to deal with that subject. Is it not ironic that it was wrong to use the full force of the state to stop a parade in 1968, but it is right to use it now in 1998? That was an interesting commentary on how things have moved forward for Ms Rodgers.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Initial Presiding Officer

I am intrigued by the connection between this and the subject on which you have chosen to speak.