Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence




  In setting out the functions of the Commission, section 2(1) of the Public Processions (NI) Act 1998 requires it, inter alia, "to promote greater understanding by the general public of issues concerning public processions".

  Ministers felt that the Commission's approach to the handling of contentious parades was widely acknowledged as credible and necessary. However, there remained some resistance, typically in areas where the more contentious parades took place. Further, the Orange Order still refused to engage with the Commission. Rather than accept this as inevitable, Ministers were keen for the Commission to try to overcome this resistance.

  To this end, Ministers recommended that the Commission do more through:

    —  a clearer and more consistent explanation in determinations of the basis and principles applied (determinations were already available on the website); and

    —  a clearer explanation of the Commission's understanding of "engagement", probably in the 1999-2000 Annual Report, based on indicators.


  Although the Commission has several distinct, though related, functions under the Act, Ministers were concerned that the media focus on its adjudicative role tended to obscure its other functions. It is charged specifically with promoting and facilitating mediation as a means of resolving disputes concerning public processions. Ministers took the view that a more widespread awareness of that fact could only be helpful and, to that end, recommended that the Commission:

    —  make a greater and better targeted effort to explain its own role (better exploitation of the existing website, CD-ROM for schools, radio phone-in etc);

    —  issue a guide on all forms of third party intervention;

    —  develop a list of those willing to serve; and

    —  provide more support and resources to local efforts to develop such skills.


  The review was conducted by officials from the NIO, who made visits to particular locations and groups, and wrote to other groups and individuals requesting structured written responses and/or meetings. Consultation took place from early November 1999 to late January 2000.

  After consultation, the immediately apparent common ground among those contacted (including David Trimble/UUP, Sinn Fein, the Grand Orange Lodge and the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition) was the need for a "rights-based approach". It was apparent that all thought such an approach would favour their own particular position although, as has since been seen, the issues are actually complex.

  In considering how best to provide for and demonstrate such a rights-based approach, and in consultation with legal advisers, the review team concluded that the early application of the Human Rights Act to the Public Processions Act had obvious attractions.

  Ministers took the view that, if the courts moved early to clarify the Convention points at issue, the Commission's job could be made easier in framing future decisions and in demonstrating their underlying even-handedness and predictability. While both sides would not necessarily be satisfied with the outcome, the fact that both had called for a more rights-dominated approach would increase the PR price for resorting to violence if they lost. The move to a courts-based system would also remove once and for all the suspicion that these decisions were made on political grounds by the Government, and make the task of policing determinations easier.

  Although the idea in abstract had had universal support, the Secretary of State decided to test this specific recommendation with the police, the courts, the Judiciary and the Human Rights Commission, and announced a further period of consultation. As stated in our oral evidence, this showed that the early implementation proposal did not command the support of some key players, and the recommendation was dropped accordingly.

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Prepared 19 July 2001