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Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone):
I welcome this opportunity to debate the second report of the Parades Commission. The Minister will recall that the commission was set up following troubles with various parades in Northern Ireland. Parades had previously been a public order matter, and the responsibility of the Chief Constable.
Those of us from Northern Ireland vigorously opposed the Bill setting up the so-called independent commission. The policing of parades is a public order and operational matter for the police; they should take the decisions because they are the people on the ground, who know the local situation.
We objected to the fact that the Parades Commission was a quango--an unelected body not answerable to the people of Northern Ireland. It consisted of people who, in many cases, did not know the facts and were unfamiliar with the situation on the ground.
The fundamental issue relating to the Parades Commission is the right to freedom of expression. That right has been described in many cases in the European Court, which states:
As the Court has consistently held, freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of everyone. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10, it is applicable not only to "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that shock, offend or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broad mindedness without which there is no "democratic society".
Thus, provided that they act and march peaceably, the Orange Institution and the loyal orders have the right under British and European law to march the highway without let or hindrance.
When the commission was set up, we argued that instead of making the situation better, it would make it worse, and the facts confirm that. Last year's report stated that 132 parades were contested, and as a result, 119 route restrictions were placed on those parades. This year's report shows that the situation is worse. A total of 297 parades were contested and route conditions were imposed on 152 of them. It is therefore obvious that the commission is making the situation worse. There are more contested parades, and more determinations are changing the routes. Those are indisputable facts.
Last year's report at least gave the impression that two sides were involved in the disputes, because it contained a picture of Garvaghy road, on which many flags of a foreign state were flying, as usual. It also contained a photograph that, from the pictures and banners shown, appeared to be of a nationalist march. However, it is difficult to find any pictures of a nationalist march in this year's report. That gives the impression, which we have always contended, that the commission is more interested in curtailing Orange and loyalist marches than nationalist marches. Although, as I have said, it is difficult to find a picture of a nationalist march, I do concede that one is included. I can determine that it is a nationalist or Ancient Order of Hibernians march only because a well-known Member
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of the Northern Ireland Assembly is shown objecting to it. The Parades Commission should be more circumspect with its photographs and show that there are two sides to the dispute, not one.
On publishing its annual report, the Parades Commission issued a statement, which makes clear what it considers to be important. It said:
Finally, we are keen, above all, to promote genuine engagement between parades organisers and those affected by parades. We attach real weight to evidence that people have sought to address the legitimate concerns of others and to accommodate those concerns where it is within their power to do so.
In other words, the Parades Commission attaches great weight to liaison between those who organise parades and those who oppose parades. It attaches such great weight that it has often changed the route of a parade because its organisers had not reached some accommodation with the protesters.
If one has a right, one should not have to seek permission from someone else to exercise it. One should not be prevented from exercising that right because someone has refused to agree with the exercising of that right. That is a fundamental issue.
I shall now deal with some of the Parades Commission's determinations, starting with that relating to Newtownbutler. The commission said:
We note that this is a traditional evening church parade, and that it will not of itself bring about undue disruption in Newtownbutler. We recognise also that the route which the organiser has notified represents a curtailment of a past route, and that the parade proposes to proceed direct from the Orange Hall to the church.
That is a small distance. The commission continues:
However, it is clear that the organiser of this parade continues not to take account of the Commission's consistent message in relation to the parades issue in Newtownbutler. The continuing refusal to come to an agreed form of engagement with the residents' representatives ensures that there can be no possibility of addressing the issue, or resolving it...It is also clear to us that the unchanged position of the loyal orders may place considerable strain on the acceptance by residents, in principle, of the right to parade in Newtownbutler. We therefore consider that for this parade to proceed on both its outward and return routes would have an adverse impact on local community relations.
One must question what is meant by a parade placing
considerable strain on the acceptance by residents, in principle, of the right to parade in Newtownbutler.
If the parade has the right to proceed along the route, it makes little difference whether the residents accept that right in principle: it should retain the right to proceed. However, because those who wish to march did not follow the behest of the commission and enter into dialogue with the residents' group, they will be penalised. They may march to the church, which is a short distance, but they may not march back. That is ridiculous, and shows that members of the commission want to impose their views on the loyal institutions.
I turn now to a Parades Commission determination that relates to a parade in the village of Mountfield, which is in my constituency. The commission states:
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I know Mountfield well. When the Parades Commission banned the parade in 1998, it took 150 policemen to enforce the ban. Last year, it allowed the parade to go ahead--as it should--and only 12 policemen were needed to police it. This year, the parade was re-routed again, and 130 policemen were needed to enforce the ban. How ridiculous can a situation get? In fact, the police are more adept than the Parades Commission, and we were allowed to march up the footpath, because there is apparently no law to prevent anyone from doing so. The Orangemen consequently got to their church service and returned happily, without any problem.
In the case of the parade at Parkmount Junior Orange Lodge in Portadown, the Parades Commission stated:
We note that this is a very small parade, comprised principally of children and young people accompanied by their parents. The parade has taken place along the notified route for many years, and organisers and parade participants have complied fully with the Code of Conduct. We are aware that there have been considerable disturbances at the parade over the past two years, and are advised that there is the possibility of public disorder irrespective of our decision.
The Parades Commission should be more honest and tell us where the disturbance at that parade is likely to come from. It will not be from the parade, but from those who do not like the parade and who wish, by breaking the law and creating a public disturbance, to get the Parades Commission to stop it. Any action taken should be directed towards those who act against the parade rather than the parade itself. Happily, on that occasion, the Parades Commission allowed the parade to go ahead, having asked its organisers
to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the parade disperses no later than 5.30 pm.
Another decision taken by the Parades Commission relates to the Altnaveigh LOL 37 parade in Newry, and states:
The Commission notes that the purpose of this parade, following a religious service, is to dedicate a new banner, and as such is not a traditional parade. The parade is scheduled to begin between 8.30 pm and 9 pm and to last for a maximum of one hour. As the parade occurs on an evening when there is late night shopping in Newry there will be a level of disruption to the life of the community. We are informed however that the parade organisers will co-operate with police to ensure that this disruption is kept to the minimum extent possible. The Commission is aware that there is no record of disorder or damage having been caused by participants in this parade. There are however significant sensitivities about loyal order parades in Newry, a largely nationalist town. While we note that the Newry community have generally shown a greater tolerance of church parades than for other loyal order parades, there remains a significant degree of opposition to parades in the locality...The
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Commission does not feel that this parade could take place at this time along the entire notified route without having a detrimental impact on relationships within the community.
The commission therefore placed a condition on the parade that it should not proceed along a certain part of the route, despite the fact that there was no likelihood of any trouble being caused by the parade.
I turn now to the decisions relating to the most important areas, in terms of trouble at parades. I shall refer particularly to the Ormeau road, where there has been a great deal of trouble, and which has been in the news constantly. The decision made in relation to the Belfast Walker Club Apprentice Boys of Derry parade stated:
The Commission has noted that this is a traditional parade held by the Belfast Walker Club of the Apprentice Boys of Derry...prior to their departure to the Annual Easter Monday Apprentice Boys of Derry Parade, due to be held this year in Tobermore. The Commission notes that this is a small parade, comprising 50 participants including one band, and that the outward journey is scheduled to leave Ballynafeigh Orange Hall at 8.15 am, proceeding by way of Ormeau Road, Donegall Pass, Charlotte Street, Lindsey Street, Maryville Street and Ormeau Avenue to Linenhall Street. The return journey is notified to proceed from Dunnes Store at Annadale Embankment at 6.30 pm via the Ormeau Road to return to Ballynafeigh Orange Hall...The Commission has set out its position in relation to loyal order parades along the Ormeau Road in its document--"Lower Ormeau Road"...In the Commission's determination in relation to the parade notified by the Belfast Walker Club along the Lower Ormeau Road on Saturday 14 August 1999, the Commission noted the evidence it had received of meetings between the representatives of Belfast Walker Club ABOD and the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community (LOCC) between 10 May 1999 and 20 July 1999. The Commission noted the stated willingness of the Belfast Walker Club ABOD representatives to address the legitimate concerns of the residents of the lower Ormeau community, where they were able to do so. The Commission further noted undertakings made by the Belfast Walker Club, both with regard to the parade notified to take place on 14 August 1999, and, notably, to a winter programme of dialogue with residents, regardless of the decision reached by the Commission regarding the 14 August 1999 parade. While the Commission regretted that a mutually acceptable solution had not been possible, it was satisfied that the direct dialogue that had been entered into represented "substantive, sustained and genuine engagement". With conditions imposed to ensure, so far as possible, that the parade could be carried out in a peaceful and dignified manner, the Commission decided not to impose route conditions. The event did not pass off peacefully and there were scenes of violence. We note that the parade was conducted with dignity and that it was the unlawful actions of persons sitting on the road so as to block the passage of the parade that caused the intervention of the police. We would add that unlawful protest effectively and on that occasion, dramatically, detracts from any engagement that has been entered into by the party engaged in that unlawful protest.
The determination continues:
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We, as members of the recently appointed Parades Commission, have read further minutes detailing a series of meetings between the Belfast Walker Club ABOD and the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community on 5 August 1999, 16 September 1999, 25 October 1999, 19 November 1999, 24 January 2000, 8 February 2000, 28 February 2000, and 14 March 2000. In addition we have read the previous minutes and papers relating to the earlier meetings. We acknowledge that our decision on the August parade was a difficult one for the LOCC, and while particularly disappointed with the events which ensued on the day of the parade, we are pleased that the talks between the two parties resumed again in September.
It goes on to state:
We have spoken to representatives of both the Belfast Walker Club ABOD and the LOCC, as well as other interested parties, including elected representatives, about the parade notified on
Monday 24 April 2000. From the evidence available to us it is clear that there is no room for optimism that any agreed solution may be imminent.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton
): Order. The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) is presenting a very detailed case, and we respect that. However, a half-hour Adjournment debate is supposed to allow for a full ministerial response, and there are only eight minutes left.
: I am conscious of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why I am rushing as fast as I can to get finished.
The determination concludes:
In the absence of local agreement, and following consultation with the police, we are aware of the very real danger of serious public disorder should the parade proceed as notified. While disruption to the life of the community would be minimal in terms of the timing and size of the parade, there would be a negative impact on relationships within the whole community.
That parade was banned. The commission realised that the residents had put in for two parades, which, it said, was to stop this legitimate parade.
The determinations show that the Parades Commission is acting unreasonably in many ways, and is doing more harm than good. I await the Minister's reply to see what he proposes to do about that.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram
): I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) for the opportunity to comment on the work of the Parades Commission in its second year as a statutory body. It would be appropriate for me to begin by commenting on events since last Sunday, which emanate from a determination of the Parades Commission.
Since the Drumcree parade on 2 July, we have seen disgraceful scenes both in Portadown, and more widely throughout Northern Ireland, in defiance of the lawful rulings of the Parades Commission. That violence could easily have led to death and serious injury. Blast bombs have been found and used, acid has been thrown at police, vehicles hijacked and acts of sectarian intimidation carried out. The police and the Army are well prepared for that sort of violence, which is, regrettably, familiar from previous years.
If the rioters believe that their actions will bring about a change in the determination of the Parades Commission or the Government, they are very much mistaken. The Secretary of State has made it clear that we will not be bullied into a change of course by such thuggery. The violence should stop now before it descends into an even worse climate of public disorder.
I turn to the substance of our debate, although I doubt whether I shall cover all the issues raised--
: I endorse all the Minister's comments on violence. We do not want any violence in Northern Ireland--we want peaceful parades. I hope that people
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will eventually accept that and that there will be tolerance in Northern Ireland. I condemn any violence, from whatever source.
: I gave way because I thought that the hon. Gentleman would respond in that way.
The hon. Gentleman and I were perhaps never likely to agree on the commission's merits and role, about which we have argued time and again. I express the Government's support for the commission and the way in which it set out to deal with the fundamental issues that were so comprehensively analysed in the North report, which gave birth to the commission.
When the North report was published in January 1997, decisions about parades and marches rested with the Chief Constable and were based on the provisions of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. The North report agreed that it was inappropriate to focus solely on the public order consequences of parades. It took that view because it argued that doing so ignored the right to peaceful assembly, the rights of those in the areas through which parades passed and the rights of the wider community. Moreover, the report considered that it was undesirable for the police to be seen to decide whether conditions should be imposed and to enforce them. Accordingly, it set out the case for an independent body that would take views from interested parties, encourage local agreement and, where that was not forthcoming, come to a view on what, if any, conditions should be imposed on what are called contentious parades. Furthermore, it would base its decisions on a broader range of factors than was previously the case, including the impact of a parade on relationships within the community, in addition to its impact on public order and the likely disruption. In one of their earliest actions in Northern Ireland, the Government legislated for the conclusions reached by the North report.
The Parades Commission is taking forward the objectives that were so clearly identified in the North report. It is doing so on the basis that determinations are a last resort, and should be made only when local agreement has not been possible. The Parades Commission takes all such factors into account when it responds to parades and marches--that matter was discussed by the hon. Member for West Tyrone.
When the commission makes a determination, it has to balance a complex series of conflicting rights. It recognises the right to march, and the competing rights of others. In a democratic society, rights are not absolute when they collide. The hon. Gentleman read out details from a European judgment. I shall write to him explaining my response to the issues that he raised.
As the North report observes, events surrounding parade disputes, such as those in Portadown, continue to dominate the public's awareness of parades. That inevitably colours the public's perception of the commission and its role. However, the report, and the previous year's report, show that the number of parades on which route restrictions had to be imposed represented a tiny proportion of those that were notified. The hon. Gentleman said that there were 132 cases last year and 152 this year. It is interesting to note that 52 of this year's 152 cases involved marches and parades in the Portadown area. He said that the Parades Commission had made the situation worse. The
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absolute number of parades that the commission has had to consider overall was 3,198 last year and 3,403 this year. There was a substantial increase in the total number of parades over which it has had to give a determination.
The Commission does not underestimate--indeed, it understands only too well--the difficulties that are inherent in dealing with the parade from Drumcree church down the Garvaghy road. That understanding is reflected in its determination on the parade notified by the Portadown district Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1 for this coming Sunday, 9 July. In its own way, the
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commission is addressing both sides of the debate. It continues in its efforts to find an equitable resolution of the Drumcree situation and it contributes to the increasing stability of relationships elsewhere in the Province.
The hon. Member for West Tyrone recited a whole range of parades over which he said that there could be a debate about how they were dealt with. He did not refer in detail to the Drumcree--
Mr. Deputy Speaker
: Order. I must stop the Minister because time is up and we must move on to the next debate.
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