he new chair of Northern Ireland’s Parades Commission has been greeted with a baptism of fire — almost literally.
Rena Shepherd has claimed a double first — she is the first Jew and the first woman to head the body, which maps out the routes for Ulster’s marching season. The season reached its climax this week with the annual Twelfth of July Orange Order and Apprentice Boys’ marches.
The Parades Commission was created as part of the Good Friday Agreement.
Trouble flared on Monday night in Northern Ireland, with 21 policemen injured — eight in Belfast alone — and vehicles set alight.
The 52-year-old Dublin-born mother and grandmother has been a Commission member for only 14 months, having worked in the private sector. She now runs her own business consultancy, Kislev.
Now she has to use the mediation skills she developed in business to gain agreement from sectarian leaders.
“It’s scary,” admitted Mrs Shepherd, “and it’s not something you do without thinking. I have to meet the leaders of all the communities and determine the routes they can use, but that’s not so difficult.
“I must consider what will be the outcome of the decisions we make. It’s very sad that both police and civilians were injured in the problems on Monday night. But this job was something I wanted to do. I felt I could make a contribution.”
She noted: “It is certainly true that as a Jew I am perceived as being impartial in some of the fundamental divisions here between Protestants and Catholics — and that obviously helps.”
While negotiating the routes of the marches, Mrs Shepherd kept in mind a prayer she found on a Lubavitch website. “I put ‘prayer for making decisions’ into Google and it came back with this one, which talked about giving wisdom and helping to take away one’s pride, ego and misconceptions and to do what is right for the world. I just use it all the time,” she said.
While Mrs Shepherd is not a member of Belfast’s Orthodox Hebrew Congregation, she is nevertheless a regular attender, with a number of friends who also go to the shul.
“There are lots of Jewish women around my age and we’re there most weeks. We do the all the festivals, the meals and the prayers and we have services for the children and I take my grandchildren along.”
She is also a fervent supporter of Israel. “I visit Israel at least once or twice a year and I have a property there. I love Israel,” said Mrs Shepherd.
As a council member of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, she is helping to organise a trade delegation from Northern Ireland to Israel under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
She noted: “As Jews we know more than most that issues around history, identity and territory are fundamental human concerns and are not restricted to Northern Ireland.”