Brehon lawyer McCabe still on parades watch

Steve McCabe, a veteran observer of Northern Ireland parades, is to write to the Parades Commission asking what action will be taken over a series of parade violations by loyalist bands marching past Short Strand on July 12th.

And McCabe, a member of the Brehon Law Society in New York who cut his spurs at the fiery Drumcree stand-offs during the 1990s, says the PSNI and Parades Commission chiefs are well aware of breaches that he witnessed.

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"The Parades Commission had determined that bands could only play hymns while passing Short Strand, a rather vague standard indeed," McCabe said.

"However, the vast majority of bands, both in the morning and the evening of the twelfth, played loud, prohibited songs such as 'The Billy Boys' and 'The Sash' while passing the grounds of St Matthew's chapel, thus removing the burdensome task of interpreting just what does and does not constitute a hymn."McCabe, who has been a standard-bearer for civil rights in the North and a staunch supporter of the peace process, says he was also dismayed at the burning of (Sinn Féin) Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile's election posters on the Pitt Park bonfire in East Belfast.

"The PSNI and Parades Commission observers were present as the Orangemen passed St Matthew's and observed these breaches. We were told that video evidence would be presented to the Public Prosecution Service for appropriate action. But of course, this is nothing new and it remains to be seen what sanctions, if any, will result."

In more than 15 years as a parades observer, attorney McCabe has seen considerable progress on the parades issue. In 1992, there were 17 Orange parades past the nationalist section of the Ormeau Road, where he was often stationed.

In recent years, there has been none. Drumcree, meanwhile, where he once witnessed loyalist leader "Mad Dog" Johnny Adair feted by 15,000 Orange supporters in a field, is, say Catholic residents of the Garvaghy Road, "a dead issue."

And Keady, where McCabe was once caught up in an RUC baton charge when dogs were used to attack nationalist residents, has also retreated from the point of being a site of controversy.

"When a group of us from different Irish American rights groups were asked to come over in the nineties, it was as much about observing transgressions by the police and army as it was about ensuring the protection of the nationalist community," explained McCabe.

"It became clear pretty quickly, especially when we were joined by congressmen such as Donald Payne of New Jersey, who once spent the eleventh night with me in Short Strand, that the authorities here had to pay attention to what we said."

Over time, McCabe developed a working relationship with the PSNI. In the period before the force was recognized by Sinn Féin, he was a go-between from the Short Strand community and police commanders over parade policing plans.

"I appreciate that the PSNI also have a tough job and I believed that people like Hugh Orde (former chief constable) were interested in ordinary people, and wanted to be accessible to the communities being affected by contentious parades."

McCabe, in recent years, has also worked closely with loyalist ex-combatants.

"People all share the same space and have to get on. After all, the working classes on both sides have been manipulated by the establishment."

On visits to Tullycarnet in East Belfast, the Irish American rights stalwart has brought cash gifts from the Irish American Partnership in Boston to local community bodies.

"The working class loyalists have lost the traditional jobs and the only answer to their problems is education, but it's clear they're not getting the education they need. That's not good for their community, and it's not good for wider society."

This year's eleventh night bonfires and twelfth parades were trouble-free - much to McCabe's relief.

"I thought the days of observing parades were over," he said.

"But when I saw the outbreak of trouble in East Belfast and the UVF attack on the district, I wasn't surprised to get a call to return. However, I'll be happy if this is the last time I get the call."