Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary


  This paper will first discuss the background leading to the establishment of the Parades Commission. Secondly, the operation of the Parades Commission will be examined in relation to its interaction with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Finally, consideration will be given in how the Commission's effectiveness may be improved concentrating in particular on its function of mediation.


  Parades and marches within Northern Ireland are deeply steeped in tradition and are reflective of the Province's political, religious, social and cultural life. Unfortunately a relatively small number of these parades[1] have become the catalyst for intercommunity tension and at times serious public disorder. For example, the tensions and protests now associated with the annual parade at Drumcree hold the power to usurp the normal commercial and social life, not only in the Portadown area, but also of the wider community within Northern Ireland.

  Prior to the establishment of the Parades Commission, the Royal Ulster Constabulary were responsible for decision-making in relation to contentious parades. The RUC have always recognised the sensitivities surrounding the parading issue, though its decision-making process was bound by the requisite public order legislation. While this legislation permitted the police power to re-route a parade from its notified route, it specified relatively narrow parameters of when these powers could be exercised. These parameters demanded that serious disorder, serious disruption of community life, or serious damage to property would be the likely outcome if the parade as notified was allowed to proceed.

  Following the violence associated with the marching season in 1996, the government commissioned Dr Peter North to review what public policy changes would be necessary to address the intricacies of this ongoing problem.

  In the Royal Ulster Constabulary's written submission to the "Independent Review of Parades and Marches", the establishment of a "tribunal" (vis-a"-vis the Parades Commission) which would be empowered to adjudicate on contentious parades was supported:

    "The case for establishing a tribunal may rest on two main arguments. Firstly, that it provides a mechanism which in the public perception separates purely operational RUC decisions from those which are seen as increasingly political. Secondly, a tribunal may allow interaction, debate and dialogue, improving the chances of finding a generally acceptable solution to the issue of a contentious parade".

  Following the publication of Dr North's report, the Parades Commission was established by the enactment of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. This tranferred the responsibility for adjudicating on parades from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Parades Commission.


  Since the establishment of the Commission, there has been a significant increase in the number of parades now deemed to be contentious. In the period 1992 to 1997, out of a total of 18,186 parades, 141 had conditions imposed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Since the establishment of the Parades Commission in 1998, out of a total of 9,778 parades, 383 have been the subject of determinations.

  There are two main reasons by which this increase may be explained. First, the Act broadened the factors that the Commission must consider in relation to all parades, rather than simply focusing on public order legislation. Second, the work of the Authorised Officers has established new conduits of communication that previously did not exist.

  The Act also places certain statutory requirements upon the Royal Ulster Constabulary. For example, the legislation requires organisers of parades and protests to serve notices of intention upon a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary not less than the rank of Sergeant, at the police station nearest to the proposed starting point. Furthermore, the Chief Constable is required to immediately forward such notices to the Commission.

  From the inception of the Parades Commission, the Royal Ulster Constabulary have been committed to enhancing the statutory requirements by establishing mechanisms deemed necessary to both maintain a high quality of interaction between the Commission and the RUC, while maintaining the integrity of both organisations. These measures are intended to assist the Commission's effectiveness in conducting their statutory functions.

  Such mechanisms include:

    —  Appointment of the Assistant Chief Constable, Operations with responsibility to ensure that close working relationships between the RUC and Commission are maintained at the highest level of police command.

    —  Appointment of an Inspector to act as the liaison officer with the Commission. This Officer, who is attached to RUC Headquarters, is tasked to provide the first point of contact for the exchange of information between the RUC and Commission.

    —  Establishment of agreed protocols, aimed at promoting better understanding and co-ordination between of the functions of both organisations.

  These protocols include:

      —  Establishing procedures in relation to processing notifications of public processions and related protest meetings.

      —  Establishing the procedures by which information is submitted to the Parades Commission as part of their consultation and information gathering process. It should be noted that with effect from June 2000, the RUC consider carefully the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 when tendering submissions to the Commission in respect of potentially contentious parades.

      —  Establishing procedures to be adopted by the Parades Commission in relation to the issuing of their determinations.

  When the Commission issue their determination in respect of a contentious parade, the police have an opportunity afforded them by statute to appeal to the Secretary of State if they disagree with their findings. It is significant that to date the Royal Ulster Constabulary have not deemed it necessary to invoke the operation of these provisions.


  In November 1999, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was invited to make a submission to the Northern Ireland Office's Review of the Parades Commission.

  The terms of reference for this review were as follows:

    "Within the existing framework of law and structures, and taking account of views received from interested parties and the experience of the marching season over the last two years, to consider:

    —  possible ways of achieving even greater acceptance of the approach to handling contentious parades; and, in particular,

    —  the arrangements for mediation;

    and to report to Ministers by the end of December 1999".

  The RUC's submission to the NIO's review alluded to the difficulties faced by the Commission in relation to their statutory function to "facilitate mediation" as set out in Section 2(2)(a) of the Act. It is however recognised that with the exception of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Loyal Orders' refusal to engage with the Parades Commission has frustrated the mediation process. On the positive side, the existence of the Commission's Authorised Officers has acted as an important conduit to other parties who previously refused to engage with the police.

  Within the bounds of the current legislative processes, the Royal Ulster Constabulary consider that the Parades Commission, via the conduit of its Authorised Officers, hold the key legislative reponsibility for mediation. In practice however, the process has proven sufficiently flexible for the Commission to encourage mediation through whichever channel may ultimately prove to be the most successful. For example, some groups have determined that they will only talk exclusively to certain parties, namely, Authorised Officers, the RUC, community leaders, or at certain junctures the Prime Minister and his representatives.

  During 2000, there have been a number of examples of mediation which has not involved the Parades Commission. Portadown District LOL No 1 and the Garvaghy Residents group have engaged the mediation services of Brian Curran in an attempt to reach a solution to the Drumcree impasse. Successful mediation initiated by Londonderry/Derry's City Centre Initiative Group between the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Bogside Residents, paved the way for a peaceful ABOD parade in Londonderry on 12 August 2000.

  The RUC's submission to the NIO Review on the question of mediation concluded that the dual role allotted to the Parades Commission to facilitate mediation and to make binding determinations gives rise to an unavoidable conflict of interests. The majority of contentious parades are those organised by the Loyal Orders, which seek to parade through or close to Nationalist areas. As a consequence therefore, the Loyal Orders may always perceive bias in a system that seeks to restrict or impose conditions on such parades. The problem is therefore the "perceived" unfairness of the entire process rather than the fact that the Commission has attempted both mediation and then determined on the parade.

  While the Royal Ulster Constabulary maintains this view despite its omission from the conclusions of the NIO Review, some positive developments have since emerged.

  In the ongoing Lower Ormeau Road dispute involving Belfast Walker Club, ABOD and the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community, the Parades Commission appears to have stepped back from involving their Authorised Officers directly in the mediation process. In August the Commission appointed two mediators in an attempt to resolve this situation. Such a development is welcomed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and permissible within the bounds of existing legislation. If the Commission further develops this approach, then it could be transposed to other contentious areas as a process contributing to conflict resolution.


  It is the opinion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary that there appears to be a greater willingness within the wider community to accept that mediation and negotiation is the way forward to resolve the parading issue. It is suggested that the part played by the Parades Commission has assisted to engender this general perception within the wider community.

  The establishment and operation of the Parades Commission has brought positive benefits, namely:

    —  they have provided channels of communication that previously did not exist;

    —  they have increased the frequency of local engagements;

    —  there is evidence of a reduced level of violence, evident in instances where protests are held even when local engagement has failed;

    —  there has been a growing recognition by both sides of the community that not all parades can proceed as notified; and

    —  there is tentative evidence of some reduction in the cost of policing protest associated with parades. Using the Drumcree protest as an example, police expenditure has decreased each year since the establishment of the Parades Commission. Figures show that in the period 1998-2000 policing Drumcree's main protest in July has cost £11 million, £6 million and £5.5 million respectively.

  The Royal Ulster Constabulary remain committed to involving themselves with the Parades Commission in order to support them in their difficult task. Ultimately the key to resolving the issue of disputed parades rests with the wider Northern Ireland community, not solely with the Parades Commission.

6 December 2000

1   See Appendix `A' page 71,-Statistical analysis of parades 1996-2000. (Source-RUC Statistics Unit). Back

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