Northern Ireland's marching season has a coat-trailing element, in which loyalists and republicans behave like two antagonists needling and circling each other, probing for a weakness. Today's Belfast Telegraph reports that a Belfast Grand Black Chapter parade will pass St Patrick's Catholic Church in Donegall Street, that seven police officers were injured at the same event last year, and that the Parades Commission has slapped down restrictions. The Police Federation wants a ban on all contentious marches: 500 police officers have been injured during the past year – 64 of them last Thursday and Friday.
Loyalist groups helped to fuel last winter's flag protests in Belfast, and their gambits are mirrored by the republicans: Sinn Fein doesn't want to cede ownership of republican mythology and matyrology to "the dissidents", who are an ever-present threat. (Three men have been arrested after the attempted murder of a police officer who was leaving a police station in Dungannan.) This helps to explain the recent republican march through Castlederg to commemorate two IRA terrorists who were killed by their own bomb. Such events can be par for the course in overwhelmingly Catholic villages, such as Carrickmore. Castlederg, however, has a mixed population, and hundreds of protesters, including relatives of IRA victims, turned out to protest.
The Northern Ireland Office's traditional view of the role of the Secretary of State during the marching season is: keep out of it – don't do anything, don't say anything. Theresa Villiers has the authority to ban marches in an emergency. The decision she made was not to bar the event – since the advice she received was that this was beyond the scope of her powers – but to meet the relatives and criticise the parade, urging that it be called off. I suspect that not all her officials were thrilled. It's worth noting that the Belfast Telegraph, which is not always supportive of the Secretary of State, praised her judgement and reaction: "her competent media performances over the past few days were no doubt noticed in Downing Street," wrote Tony Grew.
He added: "Whether you agree with her or not, Villiers has found her voice. It
seems that adversity has brought out the best in her – a useful trait in
a Cabinet minister." (The piece was headlined: "No-nonsense Villiers puts her credentials on parade".) Amidst the recent bout of briefing against women members of the Cabinet, I argued that they are no better or worse than their male equivalents – and that, in any event, it's best for Downing Street to let Ministers get to grips with their portfolios rather than panic at the first whiff of grapeshot. There are Cabinet changes which could usefully be made – more of that in due course – but moving Villiers from Northern Ireland is not one of them. As she showed last week.