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5 Jul 2000 : Column 93WH

Parades Commission

1 pm

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:

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:

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:

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:

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

Another decision taken by the Parades Commission relates to the Altnaveigh LOL 37 parade in Newry, and states:

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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:

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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.

Mr. Thompson : 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:

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.

1.23 pm

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--

Mr. Thompson : 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.

Mr. Ingram : 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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