"to support peace efforts in the country this year.
Three representatives of the Parades Commission spoke before a small group of faculty in the Hovey House Library on March 9. They reviewed the background to the commission's establishment, and the steps it is taking to prevent violence during the "marching season" - the period during spring and summer when fraternal groups stage parades that have, in some locales, inflamed Protestant-Catholic tensions.
"We do believe that the commission, and the legal framework supporting it, provides a new opportunity to bring about a useful dialogue involving as many people as possible," said commission chairman Alistair Graham. "We are determined to give our best effort."
Interviewed after the event, Assoc. Prof. Kevin O'Neill (History) - co-director of the Irish Studies Program, which hosted the delegation - described parade rights as "one of the most contentious issues in the Northern Irish political firmament." The controversy symbolizes the complex social and economic questions which have embroiled Northern Ireland for years, he said.
"The Parades Commission is the organization which has to try and set it all right," O'Neill said. "Their appearance here was an important opportunity for us - people with both scholarly and personal interests in Ireland - to share our observations with them. We're happy the members chose us as a forum in which to state their views."
The seven-person commission was created by the British government in the aftermath of violence and destruction surrounding a 1996 parade outside the town of Newry. It is empowered to regulate parades, based on factors such as the event's potential disruption to community life.
But the commission has been a lightning rod for controversy: Some Protestant groups have charged that it will limit their right to celebrate their cultural and religious heritage; Catholics have claimed its membership is unfairly biased toward Protestant and Loyalist interests.
Graham said the delegation decided to visit the US because "we know there is a lot of interest in America" about the Northern Ireland situation. He emphasized that the commission is an independent body.
"It's important to have a commission which can make decisions and live with them," Graham said, "even if not every member is completely happy with the end result."
Despite the highly charged atmosphere accompanying the marching season, the commission points out, most of the 3,000 parades in Northern Ireland every year are peaceful. Later this month, the commission plans to publish its views on parade-related disputes and what can be done to resolve them.
"There are no easy solutions," Graham said. "But we feel publishing these views before we issue a decision will allow for some major debate and discussion, and perhaps mobilize a broader body of public opinion on these issues."
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