Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence



  Following the widespread and serious public disorder brought about by the dispute over the Drumcree parade in Portadown in 1996, the Government established the Independent Review of Parades and Marches. Chaired by Dr Peter North, the Review body's remit was to "review arrangements for handling public processions and open-air public meetings and associated public order issues in Northern Ireland."

  The Review body's report, the North Report, was published in January 1997 and provided the foundation for the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 which became law in 1998. The principal change introduced by the Act was the establishment of a Parades Commission to whom responsibility for reaching conclusions in relation to disputed parades was transferred from the RUC.


  The Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 requires all public processions, with the exception of funeral processions and processions organised by the Salvation Army, to be notified to the RUC. It also requires that the RUC be advised of the procession on a statutory form not less than 28 days before the procession is due to take place. The RUC is then required to forward a copy of that form immediately to the Parades Commission.

  Before reaching decisions on parades which are considered contentious, the Commission takes account of evidence, information and advice which assist it in making those decisions. This might include those proposing the parade, those protesting against it, the RUC, the Commission's own Authorised Officers, local traders, church leaders and community groups, and concerned individuals; in fact, anyone who wishes to offer any relevant information. In addition to taking the advice of the RUC and interested individuals and organisations, the Commission deploys a team of Authorised Officers, recruited and managed by the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland. In addition to carrying out their vital mediation role in working to secure local accommodation in relation to parades disputes, the Authorised Officers gather information about parades taking place in the locations to which the Authorised Officers have been assigned. They then report to the Commission accordingly.

  We welcome both written and oral evidence from interested parties associated with a disputed parade, and we conduct meetings with such groups and individuals in advance of the parade. We advertise in the local press providing details of the parade where it is not widely known that a parade is taking place, inviting anyone who wishes to do so to submit their views.

  The advice, information and evidence which we receive from these various sources should provide us with an insight into the situation on the ground, and enable us to decide whether or not a parade is likely to be contentious. We look carefully at parades which we consider to be contentious, and try to facilitate local resolution of any difficulties. We are particularly anxious to secure a local resolution to any parading difficulty. This could be achieved by seeking, through the Authorised Officers, to promote discussions among parties involved in any local disputes; exploring options for voluntary changes to the parade route, the bands involved, or music to be played; in essence, seeking to develop a wider understanding of the issues of concern to all parties in the dispute and to reach a locally acceptable solution. If a local resolution is not possible, we may issue determinations which place conditions on individual parades.

  Where individual notified parades are considered to be contentious, we review all the evidence we have gathered, and we seek any fresh information on the situation with a view to deciding whether or not conditions should be imposed.

  Should a determination be required, it is our objective to issue that determination five working days before the parade to facilitate any procedural or legal challenge to our decision. The Committee may find it instructive to note that out of approximately 3,400 notified parades between 1 April 1999 and 31 March 2000, the Commission considered only 295 to be possibly contentious. Of that 295, we placed route restrictions on only 151, or 4.4 per cent, of all notified parades. Of these 151, 52 were related directly to the Drumcree situation.


  On taking up its statutory role in February 1998, the Commission was faced with what can only be described as entrenched intransigence on both sides, intransigence which in the past had led to conflict and confrontation. The loyal orders believed that their parades were traditional celebrations of culture and religion and that the residents groups were part of an orchestrated political agenda aimed at denying them their rights, and at confronting the RUC. On the other hand, nationalist residents saw parades as anachronistic, coat-trailing triumphalist displays and viewed the loyal orders as unbending in their determination to hold their parades wherever and whenever they chose. Both sides showed no intention of finding a solution to the problems or any desire to move things forward. This was evident by the lack of dialogue and the obstacles to dialogue which were erected, and by the lack of tolerance, mutual understanding and respect. The absence of real leadership from those in a position to influence the thinking and actions amongst the protagonists was not helpful.

  Unionists made no secret of their distaste for the legislation which created the Commission and the Orange Order steadfastly refused to meet with it. However, there have also been numerous occasions where politicians and community representatives have come to see the Commission and have willingly explained that they are active members of the Orange Order. A notable example of this was when the Lord Mayor of Belfast and a number of UUP councillors came to see the Commission in their capacity as councillors, but also in close communication with the Orange Order, to find ways of determining an acceptable route for the main 12 July Orange Order parade in 1999.

  On the other side, the Commission was castigated by leaders of some of the higher profile residents groups who, at different times, feared that it was part of some wider political conspiracy to link parades to the peace process. Against this hostile background, the Commission proceeded to develop and communicate its strategy.

  From its inception the Commission made it clear that it was born out of failure; the failure of both sides of the community with diverse cultural, religious and political traditions and aspirations to achieve agreement on the ground rules for peaceful co-existence. As an independent body, the Commission had been given the statutory powers to make decisions on parades where local agreement could not be reached and where there was contention about some aspect of the parade.

  These new statutory powers transferred the responsibility for taking decisions on parades away from the police and gave it the Commission. These powers also broadened the range of factors to be taken into account in taking decisions, and shifted the emphasis away from public order to include important new considerations like the impact on relationships within the community.

  In making its decisions the Commission has faced the difficult task of facilitating the rights of not just one group but also seeking to balance the conflicting rights of different groups with the statutory criteria laid down in legislation. It has sought to approach each contentious parade independently and fairly, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to equality of treatment for all those involved in the parades issue. The commission stressed at every opportunity that it recognises the right to parade as fundamental and entirely legitimate, just as the right of those who may object to a parade to protest within the law is also legitimate. Neither of these rights is absolute, and both those who parade and those who protest have a responsibility to exercise their rights in a peaceful and lawful way which takes into account the rights of others.

  However, the majority of the Commission's decisions have hinged on its judgment as to the impact a contentious parade will have on relationships within the community. This is one of the five statutory criteria by which we are required to decide about parades. The Commission interpreted community not only as the immediate community in which the parade takes place but also the wider Northern Ireland community. Judgments by the High Court and the Appeal Court have confirmed the propriety of the Commission's approach to the issue of community in these two ways.

  How then do we determine what impact a particular parade will have on community relationships? We measure the impact through assessing whether there has been a genuine attempt to gain the respect of the receiving community for such a parade through seeking dialogue where views can be exchanged and any concerns about a parade can be aired. The Commission has acknowledged that in some areas such dialogue is problematic and it has therefore encouraged all the parties to spare no effort in finding a mutually acceptable form of communication. The Commission has described this process of dialogue as engagement and it has stressed that, in proposing engagement to address legitimate concerns about a parade or parades in a particular locality, it makes a distinction between engaging and seeking permission. Engagement by either part represents a real attempt to address the legitimate concerns of others, and a preparedness to accommodate those concerns, where it is within their power to do so. The Commission does not suggest that parade organisers should seek permission from local residents groups. It has consistently expressed its view that local agreements are the aim and it has worked hard to promote the idea that it wishes to see fewer and fewer occasions when it has to intervene to use its statutory powers to modify the route of a parade or impose other conditions.


  Our overall goal is to reach a situation in which parades can take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, so in summary, to facilitate achievement of this, the Commission has been sending the clear message that:

    —  the parades issue is really about promoting relationships while defending rights and upholding the law;

    —  there is a right to parade, as there is a right to protest, but these rights are not absolute;

    —  only by dialogue will resolution to contentious parades be found;

    —  direct dialogue represents the best means of exchanging views and demonstrating due respect of other interests;

    —  where such dialogue is problematic all parties should spare no effort in finding a mutually acceptable form of communication;

    —  in proposing that engagement should take place, the Commission makes a distinction between engaging and seeking permission;

    —  those who oppose parades have no right of veto;

    —  engagement is "a real attempt to address the legitimate concerns of others, and a preparedness to accommodate those concerns, where it is within their power to do so".

  There is evidence across Northern Ireland that this message has been received by many of the parties involved and major steps have been taken to modify behaviour in response. The Apprentice Boys of Derry in both Londonderry and the Ormeau Road have had direct dialogue with the local residents groups. In Londonderry these talks have continued through a local accommodation in August last year, a failure to agree an accommodation in December 1998 and in August 1999, and an agreement for the parade in December last year. The commitment by local people to reach an agreement has paid off. Engagement is continuing in a number of areas. On the Ormeau Road, while unfortunately a local agreement was not reached in August, the Commission was satisfied, through evidence presented to it, that the process represented substantive, sustained and genuine engagement. The developments in both Londonderry and the Ormeau Road were due in part to the willingness of both parties to accept third party assistance as a form of mediation and to seek a solution in the interests of the community. With Londonderry, the length of time invested in the process has also been a major contributing factor. Both processes are different, but common to both has been direct dialogue through third party assistance over an extended period of time in an effort to achieve not only short term but also long term solutions to these long standing problems.

  Progress has also been made in relation to behaviour at parades. There is evidence of better and more professional marshalling of parades which has resulted in an improvement in behaviour by both bands and participants. This has been due to a number of factors. The Commission's Authorised Officers have worked very closely with some of the bands and parade organisers in communicating not only the Commission's concerns, but wider cross-community concerns about bad behaviour. The Commission has also communicated very clearly through the Code of Conduct and its determinations, including a number of examples when bands have been excluded from parades, the behaviour and respect the local communities deserve.

  The Commission's experience to date shows that the nature of engagement differs depending on the area and the personalities involved, reinforcing its obligation to consider each parade on its own merits. When the Commission published its annual report last April, it described engagement as "a real attempt to address the legitimate concerns of others, and a preparedness to accommodate those concerns, where it is within their power to do so". Building on the Commission's experience to date, we have been giving some thought as to how we, as newly appointed members of the Commission, might further define engagement, without being too prescriptive, in order to clarify it for the parties involved. This should also contribute to the transparancy of our decision-making process in the event of local accommodation not being achieved. We will consider this further, but as a start we would suggest the following list of possible indicators:

  Each party should

    —  show respect to the other and we interpret respect as meaning a commitment to solving the problem;

    —  be willing to communicate their legitimate concerns;

    —  listen to and take account of each others views;

    —  enter the process with no preconceived outcomes;

    —  have the power and permission to speak for the protagonists;

    —  demonstrate a willingness to consider some form of third party intervention such as mediation if direct dialogue is not possible.


  The Commission recognises that mediation is not an exact science and by its nature can take a variety of forms and mean different things to different people. For working purposes, however, the Commission adopted the definition of mediation provided in the Report by the Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity (INCORE) entitled "Mediation in Practice", namely, "efforts to improve communication between two parties in a dispute in a sincere search for a voluntary arrangement that accommodates that relevant interest of all involved".

  On reviewing its statutory documents earlier this year, based on a year's operation, the Commission reflected on its experience and thinking on mediation. In recognising that disputes over parades are best resolved at local level, the Commission acknowledged that structures to facilitate cross-community communication exist in some locations. Where there was desire to create a structure or design a process, our Authorised Officers were available to provide advice and support. It was not the Commission's intention to prescribe the form that such structures should take but what was important, and continues to be, is that such structures have the confidence and endorsement of those most closely concerned with the disputes. The revised documents were issued in July 1999. The services of the Authorised Officers are a ready source of expertise to facilitate local processes aimed at resolving difficulties over parades.

  On reflecting on its role in relation to promoting and facilitating mediation, the Commission has, with the assistance of the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland, developed its thinking further. We would describe mediation as third party intervention in a dispute. It is not about chairing or directing discussions rather it is about providing the right environment and stimuli to allow parties to the dispute to explore one another's perspective with a view to mutual understanding and respect, and possibly an eventual local accommodation. There is an underlying expectation that the detail of the discussions will be kept confidential until such times as an accommodation is reached or and objective assessment required.

  Central to mediation is the agreement of a process which clearly defines the parameters of the dialogue, the participants, the role of the mediator and the various stages to be achieved, including an analysis of the conflict, defining the problems, and attempting to stabilise the situation before moving on to identifying ways in which the conflict can be addressed.


  The conclusions of the Northern Ireland Office Review highlighted developments which could be put in place in relation to the educative role of the Commission, further definition of engagement, and heightening awareness about the possibility of mediation. In considering how to develop our role further, we are giving further consideration to the meaning of engagement with a view to including this in our next annual report; we are looking at the further development of mediation; and we are examining the implications of the implementation of human rights legislation as it would apply to the parades issue. We aim to improve our communicative and educative role, with, for example the re-design of the Commission website, which has now been completed, an important first step in this respect.


  We intend to develop the explanation of engagement given on page 20 of the Commission's first Annual Report. This will not only clarify the concept for the parties, but also assist us as newly appointed members of the Commission in quality assuring any form of engagement in the light of failure to attain local accommodation for a contentious parade. A useful starting point might be the consideration of the indicators I have set out on page 4.


  It would be helpful to have a guide to all forms of third party intervention including mediation. Also useful would be a guide as to who to contact to seek the assistance of a competent mediator. We also believe that there may be even greater scope within our existing Procedural Rules to clarify at an early stage whether there is potential for resolving a dispute.

  Authorised Officers are currently engaged in developing local mediation capacity to work for long term solutions to parading disputes. Recognising that local people accepted by both sides stand the best chance to gain local accommodation, the Commission will, through the Authorised Officers, continue to provide support and resources to underpin these local efforts.


  We will be considering how further to develop education in the role of the Commission, in line with the remit set out in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 which provides that the duty of the Commission shall be to promote greater understanding by the general public of issues concerning parades.

  The Commission had taken some steps in this direction, with the publication and distribution to every household in Northern Ireland of explanatory leaflets about its work. Its decisions were, in addition, published on its website, which is currently being re-designed. This will enable visitors to the website to view all the Commission's decisions and determinations, its Annual Reports, the statutory documents, the legislation under which it operates, and all parades notified to the Commission. The website will also contain replies to frequently asked questions, which are intended to dispel some of the myths surrounding the Commission.

Human Rights

  A key proposal contained in the Northern Ireland Office Review is the selective early implementation of the full European Convention of Human Rights in respect of public processions.

  The Commission supports fully the implementation of the Human Rights Act across all fields of UK law. The Commission's Guidelines are based on the fundamental premise that the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression as set out in the European Convention of Human Rights are important rights to be enjoyed by all. The Commission's position on human rights is set out clearly in its Guidelines document, and also in its determination of 28 June 1999 in respect of the 1999 Drumcree church parade.

  There is no quick fix for the parades problem and accordingly we, as a Commission, will continue to take a long term approach. The Commission has sought, through use of its statutory powers, to bring about positive change. I believe there has been some progress, and I see the above recommendations as a development of the work the Commission has already been doing.

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