This week former George W. Bush administration special envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass began what is slated to be twelve weeks of intermittent consultations with the five parties in Northern Ireland's Executive. The talks will be conducted in rounds with Haass flying in to Belfast from New York several times a month to conduct them. The talks will focus on three key stumbling blocks to progress in the peace process: parades, flags and emblems, and dealing with the past.
As part of the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s a quango (quasi non-governmental organization--a body financed by the government but with independence like an NGO) known as the Parades Commission was created to deal with the problem of parades regulation during the marching season. Every year it receives requests for parade permits stating the date, time, route, and details of a proposed parade. Local residents along the parade route are free to submit objections and the Parades Commission then makes a ruling. Only a few parades in Northern Ireland--those involving Protestants marching through Catholic areas--are controversial. At present these are mainly in North Belfast, which is an area of alternating nationalist and unionist neighborhoods criss-crossed with peace walls in order to protect the residents from missiles from the other side. The Orange Order has refused to hold dialogues with residents' groups contending that its members have an absolute right to march on the "Queen's highway." Since the mid-1990s when the controversies were at their height over the Drumcree Church march outside of Portadown in north Co. Armagh, in the Lower Ormeau area of South Belfast, and in Derry in Co. Londonderry, the number of controversial parades has been gradually reduced.