Examination of Witnesses (Questions 286
WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001
286. Mr Watkins, it is a pleasure to see yourself
and your colleagues, and we have taken evidence from at least
one of your colleagues, on a previous and almost totally unrelated
subject; but a very warm welcome to you. As I think you will know,
from other occasions on which the Northern Ireland Office has
given evidence before us, we will endeavour to make sure that
the questions follow a logical order, but they may come from different
corners of the horseshoe. And you should feel totally at liberty
to gloss any answer you give, either here or in writing afterwards,
if there is some way in which you wish to add to it, or improve
on it, and we, likewise, will feel free to ask supplementary questions
in writing, if we spot, when we read the transcript, that there
is some aspect about which we should have asked questions. In
addition to introducing your colleagues, I do not know whether
you would like to say a word or two at the beginning, in addition
to what you have already sent us?
(Mr Watkins) Thank you for your welcome,
Mr Chairman. Perhaps, indeed, I might introduce Mrs Mary Madden,
who is the Head of Security Policy and Operations Division, in
the Northern Ireland Office, and Mr Ian Kerr, from the same Division.
Perhaps, indeed, I might take up your offer to make a very brief
statement, not least as it is some months since our memoranda
were submitted to the Committee. The establishment of the Parades
Commission flowed from the North Report and is provided for the
Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. The Government
believes that the analysis of the North Report, essentially, that
marches involve a balance of competing, qualified rights, continues
to hold. In its view, the Commission plays a necessary role in
both promoting and facilitating mediation and adjudicating on
parades and the competing rights at issue where agreement has
not otherwise been reached. The Government believes that experience
of three years of the functioning of the Commission has tended
to vindicate its view. In 1999, the Government decided that a
short review of various aspects of parades would be appropriate;
in the event, it decided not to proceed with what was regarded
as the review's main recommendation, the early application of
the Human Rights Act to parades. This was because a number of
groups, notably the new Commission itself, was not in favour of
this; in any case, of course, the Act has applied to parades,
as to other matters, since its commencement on 2 October 2000,
and, indeed, a case was taken late last year under the Human Rights
Act against a determination by the Commission in relation to a
march in Dunloy, but the application was dismissed. In the meantime,
the 2000 marching season passed off relatively, and I underline
relatively, successfully. There were, I believe, some signs of
growing acceptance of rights on both sides and of the need for
the Commission; but the fact remains that unacceptable violence,
some of a very unpleasant nature, did occur, and, of course, Drumcree
remains unresolved. The third memorandum that we submitted to
the Committee, Mr Chairman, related to the appointment of a new
Commission, in February 2000. After describing the process itself,
we recorded in that memorandum that judicial review of the appointments
had been sought. Perhaps I should note, for the Committee, that
that application too was dismissed. Mr Chairman, I hope you and
your colleagues on the Committee find those brief comments helpful.
Chairman: I am grateful to you, Mr Watkins.
I was going to lead off with a question about the application
for judicial review of the appointments process and was going
to ask you the outcome; you have anticipated me by what you said
in your opening statement, for which we are grateful.
287. Good afternoon. You referred, in your opening
remarks, to the review and the announcement of that, which I think
took place in October 1999, did it not, and that is a fairly short
period from the Parades Commission being up and running in, I
think it was, February 1998. Why was that review announced, and
what were the factors that determined its scope?
(Mr Watkins) Ministers concluded that after two marching
seasons under the operation of the 1998 Act and two marching seasons
under the new structures, i.e. with the Parades Commission, fully
empowered as it was, and not least since there were to be new
appointments to the Commission from February 2000, that the time
was right to carry out what Ministers regarded as a fine-tuning,
to see whether there were any adjustments that might be made to
existing policy and the existing operation of the Commission.
It is very important, if I may say so, that the terms of reference
said that the review was to be carried out within the existing
framework of law and structures. And that, I think, suggests that,
indeed, in the Government's mind, it was a stock-take, it was
an opportunity to fine-tune, with an emphasis on trying to extend
the confidence that there was in the structures in the Parades
Commission in the way it operated. And, secondly, to see if there
were ways of promoting mediation, as well as what had seemed to
become, in common perception, the primary role of the Commission,
namely, to make adjudications.
288. So why was no formal report of the review
(Mr Watkins) I think that was because Ministers saw
it as taking stock, as an opportunity to fine-tune, rather than
pulling up the plant by the roots, it was within the existing
structures and law. And, indeed, if I recall, whenever the then
Secretary of State announced it, on, I think, 8 October 1999,
it was clear that officials would make recommendations to the
Secretary of State, who would then make an announcement. So there
was already an implication there, I think, that this was not going
to be a formal published review, the conclusions of the review
were to be announced, and that is what happened.
289. Would it be possible for members of the
Committee to see a copy of the report made to the Secretary of
(Mr Watkins) The report was in the form of a submission
from officials to the Secretary of State. May I consider, with
Ministers, to whom the submission was made, what view they would
take of that? I would wish to comply with the Committee, of course,
insofar as Ministers would be content with that, but since it
was a submission to the Secretary of State I would need his authority,
if I may.
Mr Grogan: Yes. Thank you.
290. On what evidence did the review conclude
that the Commission had achieved many of its objectives in encouraging
local agreement where possible?
(Mr Watkins) I think there was a view, which was imparted
not least by the Commission itself, that, over the previous two
seasons, 1998 and 1999, there had been a greater use of the `authorised
officers' systems. Secondly, there was a view that the 1999 marching
season passed off rather more easily than the previous, first
year of the Commission's operations, in 1998, when I am sure the
Committee will remember very clearly the scenes at Drumcree, in
particular, at that time. And that suggested, I think, to the
Commission and to the Government that there was a greater recognition
of the fact that there are at issue here competing and qualified
rights, and that the mechanism set up by the Act was in some ways
working. There were particular instances where mediation had actually
been successful, perhaps the most obvious of which, perhaps most
recently, has been in Derry, and where there have been signs of
that sort of greater readiness to compromise, which implied in
itself a greater recognition that there were competing rights
291. Let me take a slightly more pessimistic
line of inquiry. If many of the objectives have been achieved,
would you like to tell us about the objectives which were not?
(Mr Watkins) The Commission itself, and indeed the
former Chairman, was very fond of saying that when the Commission
had to make adjudications that was borne out of failure. In a
sense, the Government's objectives would be for the Commission
not to have to make any adjudications whatsoever, because these
issues would be dealt with locally by mediation and by local accommodation.
The objective we would have is indeed that that should happen;
but the fact is that, my recollection is, in fact, of the last
nine months, there were 156 occasions when, in relation, I think,
to Loyalist marches, restrictions or conditions had to be imposed,
and that suggested that, indeed, the Government's ideal objective
has not yet been achieved.
292. Let me go back to what you said about the
Human Rights Act and the decision not to implement it. You explained
about the new Parades Commission and their feelings about it,
I am not sure you gave us the reason why they took that view?
(Mr Watkins) Why the Parades Commission took that
293. Yes, the Parades Commission.
(Mr Watkins) The Parades Commission, I think, took
the view that it was actually simply too late, it was too close
to the beginning of the marching season to have, as it were, a
material change in the underlying rules, and I think that was
the view that they took; the previous Commission, whom we had
consulted in November 1999, had actually been quite distinctly
in favour. The new Commission was still in favour of the analysis
of the parades issue as a rights-based dispute, but it took the
view that it was too close to the marching season to apply it
at that point.
294. And that became the prevailing determination?
(Mr Watkins) It did. The fact that the main instrument
of the Government's policy was not in favour of the Government's
proposal clearly weighed very heavily with the Government. It
is also the case that other bodies, like the Human Rights Commission,
were not in favour of the proposition either, arguing instead
that the Human Rights Act should apply across the board and not
just to marching at the appointed commencement date of 2 October.
And given that there was the Secretary of State's announcement
early in the year that he would consult with the Parades Commission,
the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission, the police, given
that two of those, at least, of those main consultees, turned
out against the proposition, weighed heavily with Ministers.
295. And, obviously, as with all decisions,
there is a downside as well as a justification. In balance-sheet
terms, what would you say was the cost that has been sustained
as a result of not carrying it forward?
(Mr Watkins) One of our objectives, in the early application
of the Human Rights Act, and perhaps, I might say, of all of the
Human Rights Act, apart from one very minor technical sub-section,
there was a suggestion at the time that it was to be selectively
applied, that was never the case, it was always to be applied
in total, apart from one very minor technical issue which had
no bearing actually on the main question. Our view was that there
was advantage in that, in that it would establish very early,
and applying to the year 2000 marching season, a commonly understood
level playing-field, which would encourage the community as a
whole, the Loyal Orders, the residents groups, political parties,
to continue to see the issue in its right terms, namely a matter
of competition between competing rights. We wanted that, dare
I say it, education process to kick in as early as possible, and
I do not mean that in a pejorative sense, Chairman, to start as
early as possible. The loss, therefore, was that we had had a
marching season without the Human Rights Act actually applying.
Having said that, the Parades Commission, like a lot of other
public bodies, has anticipated, in the way in which it does its
business, the application of the Human Rights Act, and it was
careful therefore, throughout the 2000 marching season, as far
as possible, to ensure that it was fulfilling a proper balance
of rights, as required by the incoming legislation. So I think,
actually, the negative side of the balance-sheet was really pretty
296. Has the Northern Ireland Office made an
assessment of how effectively the Parades Commission has implemented
the conclusions of the review?
(Mr Watkins) Yes, we have. There were a number of
recommendations. For example, we recommended that the Commission
should take steps, in shorthand, to heighten the awareness of
mediation, and we understand that they continue to consider issues
like a guide to various forms of mediation, sort of a list of
qualified mediators. We also proposed that the Parades Commission
should develop an awareness amongst the public of its role and
how it sets about its role. It has, since then, for example, developed
its own website, and it is currently developing, we understand,
an outreach and communications strategy, designed to change the
common understanding of the role of the Commission away from simply
a determination and an adjudicative mechanism to its wider role
in promoting and facilitating mediation. We recommended that it
should insert more details of its reasoning in its determinations;
it has done that, and I think one can point to a number of determinations
where that is the case. We suggested that the Commission might
want to offer guidance in its 1999-2000 Annual Report on what
it means by engagement, and it did that, on pages 15 and 16. It
had a little essay, as it were, on what it understood by the term
engagement, which had been the subject of some questioning before
that. And, lastly, of course, there is the human rights issue,
which was not a recommendation for the Commission but for the
Government, and we have explored that.
297. And that helpful resumé covered
a number of things where the recommendation might be described
as having been fulfilled in full, but one or two others where
there are good intentions but it has not yet been accomplished.
Are there deadlines in the latter case?
(Mr Watkins) No, there are not. It would be an issue
that we would discuss, from time to time, with the Chairman of
the Commission, and we will be doing that again shortly. But these
are recommendations to an independent Commission, which we believe
it is for them to evaluate. They do not object in principle to
any of the recommendations that affect themselves, but how they
actually implement that is, I think, primarily a matter for them;
that is not to say that if they did not do anything about it we
would not be asking questions, but we would be asking them to
justify why not, and why not more quickly.
298. And any sense of omission on the part of
(Mr Watkins) In relation to those recommendations
which are the responsibility of the Parades Commission?
(Mr Watkins) The Parades Commission is sponsored by
the Northern Ireland Office, at the same time it is an independent
body. We would certainly wish to see them implementing as soon
as possible. I would regret, Ministers would regret, that the
recommendations had not been implemented by the Commission as
fully as they might like; and I will admit to a certain amount
of regret and responsibility over that, yes.
Chairman: Thank you so much.
3 See also Ev p 99. Back
See also Ev p 100. Back