Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Mr Holland, you are very welcome. Thank you very much indeed both for the information which you sent us in advance, or the Commission sent us in advance, and also for coming to give evidence to us today. We operate, as you probably know, under a local ground rule that any witness should feel entirely free subsequently to gloss any answer they have given us, whether at the time or in writing afterwards, and we will reserve the right to come back with a supplementary question in writing if a question occurs to us on reading the transcript on which we want further information. We will endeavour to make sure that the questions follow a logical order, but that means that they may come from different places in the horse shoe as and when particular people ask questions. Let me preface any questions by asking if there is anything you would like to say to us before we begin?
  (Mr Holland) Thank you, Chairman, Members. I do welcome the opportunity to have a preliminary canter, if I may, before you on some of the matters that no doubt will be touched upon this afternoon. First of all I want to say thank you for giving me the opportunity of being here at all. The first thing I want to stress is that to a certain extent we are all, in my context in the Commission, myself and my Commission members, with one exception, fairly new members. The Commission has only been in being, from our point of view, for ten weeks. The first thing I ought to do is to pay tribute to Sir Alastair Graham who with his colleagues, for the first two years of the Commission's life, had to make a large number of hard decisions which I think has built for us a foundation which we will try to build on ourselves and to improve and develop the thoughts of the Commission in relation to this vexed issue of parades. Obviously it is not going to be an easy task for us because we only have one member from the former Commission who is still a member of the Commission, we have five new members plus myself. Nevertheless, we are well served by a secretariat. Heather Robinson, who was the secretary until last week, has been replaced on a pro tem basis by David Hill, who is with me today, together with Sir John Pringle and John Cousins who are two of my colleagues on the Commission. The major thing that we have had to address since we started in the middle of February is the fact that a review had been put in process by the Government and we are still looking at that and considering its long-term effects upon our own deliberations. Our main concern is to build upon what happened before and to take forward some of the ideas that were developed by the previous Commission. There is a lot of work to be done and we have a number of targets that we want to try to achieve. To that end we are going to spend two days together later on this month in the Province, two away days, if you like, developing some of our ideas and thoughts and, indeed, looking in more detail at the substance of the review process. I think that is all I want to say at this stage, I appreciate you will have many questions you will want to put to me and I will endeavour, so far as I can with the limited experience I have had on the Commission, to answer those questions. I should say this also, that the other limitation I have is I come anew or afresh, if you like, to this particular area. I have no connection with Northern Ireland. Therefore, my learning curve has been pretty steep. I would not say that I have anything like reached the top of it but I hope I am some way up the incline.

  2. Thank you very much indeed for those opening remarks. Let me ask some ground clearing questions. Could you remind us of the size of the Commission staff?
  (Mr Holland) It is around 11 to 12. Currently it is two people short because of recruitment that is taking place. We also have the added advantage of using, if you like, as part of our staff the authorised officers who are contracted through the Mediation Network of Northern Ireland.

  3. What sort of budget do you have overall?
  (Mr Holland) It is just over £1 million. The budget for 2000-2001 is £1.136 million. I am not too familiar with the budget to be perfectly honest.

  4. That is all right, £1 million gives us a flavour. Would you like to say a little more about the authorised officers and the amount of business you do in fact contract out?
  (Mr Holland) Yes. The amount that we contract out to the MNNI is currently under discussion. When we arrived at the Commission we were faced with the fact that a contract had been entered into which is up for revision currently and is being looked at. The budget last year was something around £200,000. It consists of time that we obtained from two members of the MNNI, that is Brendan McAlistair and Joe Campbell, plus the use of the authorised officers who are set up in twos throughout the Province in particular areas and they, of course, on the ground have a very detailed knowledge of the parties who are involved, the residents, and those who want to exercise their right to parade.

Mr Clarke

  5. You are welcome, Mr Holland, I apologise for missing the start of your introduction. A general question in as much as the Commission has had a statutory role and statutory powers since February 1998, a reasonably short period of time. I wonder if you could tell us what progress you feel has been made in improving the acceptance of the concept of a body with statutory powers and regulating parades amongst the populace?
  (Mr Holland) From what I have seen, and it is based only on ten weeks visiting the Province roughly for two days a week in each of those ten weeks with an exception in the middle of March, and also from looking at a lot of press cuttings and reading a fair amount of material on the background, I think there is an acceptance to a lesser or greater extent. I think it is probably to a lesser extent by some of the loyal orders, but not all of them, and I think to a greater extent by some of the residents of the areas affected by some of the contentious marches. I also get the impression that it is a different kind of acceptance in different areas. That sounds an odd way of putting it but I think in some areas there is a greater degree of acceptance than perhaps in other areas. I think if I had to obtain anything helpful from the review it would be that, in fact, amongst the ordinary people of Northern Ireland there is quite considerable acceptance of the fact that the Commission has to make hard decisions, and they are hard decisions, I quite accept that, and they do cause pain to both sides on occasions, those decisions have to be made. It is better if they are made by the Commission than what previously used to happen. I think to that extent we do obtain the consent of the vast majority of people but I have no grounds for saying that rather than a feeling based only on ten weeks.

  6. You mentioned the Northern Ireland Office review which, of course, commented on the need for a greater educative role. If we take the whole concept of the public perception of the Commission, what steps has the Commission taken to promote greater understanding by the general public of issues concerning the Parades Commission?
  (Mr Holland) I think it took a great number of steps when it was first set up in relation to sending out brochures to every household in Northern Ireland and, of course, Alastair Graham was always available for interviews and so on on what the Commission is doing. While I have been there—I cannot claim any originality behind this because it was already in place or the instrument setting it in place was in place—the website has been created and I think that is certainly important. We do however, in my view, need to have a much greater opportunity provided to everyone to meet us. We are going to consider this question of communication certainly at our meeting next week or the week after next actually so we can make ourselves more visible, I think greater visibility is the word I am looking for, in the Province, so that there can be a realisation that, yes, we are doing a very difficult job. We do make mistakes, obviously, everybody makes mistakes, but we are making these hard decisions, sometimes in my view quite correctly.

  7. You say there will be a general perception of the role and then there will be perhaps a slightly different perception in those areas where there are contentious parades.
  (Mr Holland) Quite.

  8. In respect of the educative role that the Commission has, do you think that it is different? I think you had already started to say it was in respect of those areas where there is contention and the general perception.
  (Mr Holland) Yes, I think it is quite different because in those areas where there is a clear unhappiness, if you like, the contentious areas where the parades take place, it becomes increasingly clear to me that a ready acceptance of the Commission is going to take some considerable time. I do not think that there is an appreciation that we are there at all. I think, however, my great belief is by meeting people, talking to people and trying to educate them as to what we are about will help. It is not a total palliative. I think that time is the only real answer in all this. It would be quite wrong for me to come in, and I do emphasise this, to say that I have a ready answer after ten weeks. It is going to take a considerable amount of time on my part to get a real feel for some of the issues, I very much realise that. Having said that, however, I have always taken the view that if one is relatively open, and particularly if one is open to suggestions and ideas, and tries to be susceptible to listening to people's arguments and giving them a balanced view and a balanced judgment in the end, you will make some progress. It will not be total progress because many of the people concerned, of course, do not want to listen to what you have to say, they do not really want to believe in the Commission. All we can do is to keep hammering away at the idea that the Commission is the only way forward, there are no alternatives in town on this issue.

  9. The final part of the question, it is a general question again. If we look beyond the statutory role and the regulation of parades, do you think progress is being made in that deficit that was identified in terms of the educative role of the Commission?
  (Mr Holland) It is too early to say that, I think, from my own knowledge. I would hope so but you can never do too much in this area in my view. Certainly it is my intention—to use an old fashioned expression—to be out and about as much as possible, to spend as much time as I can in the Province to that end. I intend to have a lot of lunches and dinners and address people and talk to people so far as I can.

  Chairman: Dr Palmer, I know you have a later question you want to ask but I think you have some questions you would like to ask now.

Dr Palmer

  10. Yes. Firstly, I would like to welcome you also to the Committee meeting. It is very kind of you to come.
  (Mr Holland) Thank you.

  11. What steps has the Commission taken to promote and facilitate mediation as a means of resolving disputes concerning public processions? In particular, do you see any conflict of interest or conflict of role between the duty to encourage mediation and the statutory authority to issue a determination?
  (Mr Holland) The steps that we have taken in the past, the Commission has taken in the past, have been to engage the Mediation Network of Northern Ireland and that is at an official level. Also, there have been private meetings in the past between the Commission and the various parties. It has not and cannot—for reasons I will explain in a minute—directly get itself involved in the mediation role as a direct player, it has to facilitate it and promote it. The reason being that if we did then immediately we become tainted in relation to a decision making process. That is the second part of your question. If we do not tread very carefully we can, by getting too involved in mediation, contaminate the decision making process. Having said that, there is no doubt that the Commission as reconstituted has a particular desire to take some more steps and to build upon what went before to facilitate mediation. One of our members is Dr Roy Magee and certainly he has a considerable interest in this. It is interesting in many ways. I came to this job really from a commercial/legal background where my entire life has been spent making deals. I was there to facilitate deals between conflicting interests of different clients. Therefore, my natural—if you like—inclination is to try and make deals which of course we cannot do, first of all because we must not contaminate the process and, secondly, because each application for a parade stands in its own right. Whereas you might say it would be nice to do a deal for two or three years and to get the thing sorted out that way and to bring some degree of certainty both to the residents and to the organisers of these parades—and that would be very important to them—it is very difficult to do that. I am trying to see at the moment if it is possible to do it using a mediation role but I have not yet come to a conclusion. It is one of the things we will be talking about at our away day. I am sorry to keep talking about this away day but we are only ten weeks into our existence.

  12. Those who—to put it delicately—are particularly convinced of the justice of their cause sometimes criticise mediation on the grounds that it implies both sides have to give ground even if one side is arguably in the right. Do you have a comment on that? Do you feel that in that situation it is necessary to give ground even if you feel you are sure you are in the right or do you feel that there would be circumstances where you would say to one side "I am sorry but you are wrong"?
  (Mr Holland) I think obviously in the contentious areas both sides believe fundamentally that they are in the right and, therefore, that is why one sees occasionally mediation is not going to work in that particular scenario because their views are so deeply entrenched and held that mediation is not going to produce a solution. My experience, if I can put it like that, not of mediation but where you have that kind of situation, is that very often if mediation is there perhaps you can get some kind of long term solution involving a bit of give and take, which everyone recognises is give and take. But I think to try and mediate an individual decision is the trickier task and probably, as I think Mediation Network in Northern Ireland said, impossible in certain situations.


  13. Before I turn to Mr McGrady can I just get clear in terms of the answers you were giving to Dr Palmer a moment ago, the difficulties you found yourself in. Were they a function of the strait jacket of the legislation or just a matter of principle?
  (Mr Holland) It is really the legislation I think because the legislation implicitly talks about each application being the subject of a decision by the Parades Commission. You cannot bundle up, if you like, a scenario together and say "What is the right way forward for that particular scenario or that particular area". Before I say they ought to change legislation, I think I would want to think about whether if they did change it that would meet the particular problem. You could say, well, you cannot bundle things together like that because different attitudes and different things are brought to bear at different times depending on the particular year in question or the particular circumstance in that particular year. You cannot really forecast what the position will be, for example, in 2002 and so on. Really it does mean that you have got to accept the straitjacket, if it is a straitjacket, of legislation, and try and put together some package, if you like, outside that, not involving mediation but a kind of mediation which might be brokering a deal.

  14. I was not in any way seeking to put you in a position where you had to find fault with the legislation but I assume I am right in inferring from your answers that they are issues about which you are continuing to think?
  (Mr Holland) Yes, that is exactly right.

Mr McGrady

  15. Welcome, Mr Holland. Can I deal with some practical questions. I take note that you have only been ten weeks in post. The Commission has a duty to keep itself informed of the conduct at processions and, indeed, the conduct at protest meetings. How do you achieve this assessment? How do you separate evidence from subjective judgments? Is there any general pattern you have learned from these practical observations on the ground?
  (Mr Holland) From what I have seen so far, we rely primarily upon the reports that we get from the police. We also have the evidence of the Authorised Officers who observe what takes place at individual parades and we may well have, and often do have, letters from the members of the public who have a view they want to express after the parade. So far, and this is very much a premature view I have not shared with anybody else, I have felt slightly interested as to why they do not have a greater formal post mortem report. It may well be that was looked at by the previous Commission, I do not know if it was or not, and there were found to be reasons why it was not worth the effort. I think that certainly it is something I want to look at. What we do have at the moment gives us a very clear view as to what happened, but a post mortem report formally put together might produce a little bit more information. I am being very frank about this because, as I say, it is still something in my mind.

  16. In that context, would you anticipate that the Commission would make any comparative studies of events elsewhere either in the UK or worldwide of comparable problems in order to draw lessons from them, if possible?
  (Mr Holland) This Commission has not. I know that the previous Commission went to America, I think to Washington, to Boston and I suspect New York as well, to see what they could learn from that. Having spent many months working in those cities I was not quite so enthusiastic about going myself. At this stage I have not given any further thought to that.

  17. The Commission has made recommendations, as I understand it, to the Secretary of State regarding the operation of the Public Processions Order. How has the Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Office responded to these recommendations from the Commission?
  (Mr Holland) I cannot answer that question because I just do not know whether they have or not.

  18. They may not have answered you?
  (Mr Holland) I have no knowledge of that answer.

  19. Would it be possible in the fullness of time to have an answer on it?
  (Mr Holland) I will let you have a written answer to that question.

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