Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 510 - 519)




  510. Mr Holland, you and your colleagues are very welcome. I am sure in a moment you will introduce them to us. I think we have had forewarning of several but not necessarily the total gathering. You will know from previous occasions on which we have had the pleasure of taking evidence from you that we endeavour to make our questions follow a logical order. You are entirely at liberty to gloss whatever answers you wish should you wish to do so, either orally now or in writing afterwards, and equally we reserve the right to come back with supplementary questions once we have read the transcript. I think I must give you the task of orchestrating who in your serried ranks is going to answer questions. Because of the coincidence of the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall on Northern Ireland, what is described as The Field of Vision, to which the Prime Minister came shortly after half past three, that has made the start of this session somewhat later than it would otherwise have been. That is not remotely your responsibility; it is the coincidence of the exhibition. I hope not every member of the Commission will find it necessary to answer every question, I think that might prolong matters a bit. We did receive yesterday evening, and one or two of us were actually in Ireland yesterday so we received it even later than the rest of the Committee, the comments you have made on the evidence given by some of the other witnesses to us. Because of the time at which it arrived, and the quite considerable amount of cross referencing one had to do in order, not to make sense of it but to make it as valuable as it is clearly intended to be, I think we would regard it as a further written submission rather than a significant part of today's agenda[1]. I realise you or your colleagues may want to make reference to it at some point in the proceedings in answer to particular questions we might ask. We are not going to dwell on it significantly but we are grateful to you for having gone to that trouble. So far as we are concerned, this is simply an opportunity to revisit something with you, having obviously taken a lot of evidence from other people and in the light of experience during the season. Is there anything in addition to introducing your colleagues you would like just to say yourself before we start?

  (Mr Holland) Only briefly, first of all, to thank you, Chairman, for allowing us to come here today. I thought it right actually to bring the Commission with me because, after all, we are a body of people as opposed to me individually or even two or three of us individually and we are all here except for Peter Quinn who, unfortunately, is ill. Starting at the end I will introduce Roy Magee, John Cousins, Sir John Pringle, and on my right Peter Osborne and Billy Martin. I want to identify to you the fact that all of us were new on this Commission with the exception of Billy Martin who spent, I think, two years on the previous Commission, and Roy Magee who was also on the previous Commission but not for such a long time as that. I thought it desirable that we should all come because it is an important matter for Northern Ireland. As a Commission, we have had the benefit now of working together for just over 12 months. I think all of us value the parading culture of Northern Ireland and, indeed, hope that in some small way we can gradually enhance it. The problem, of course, is that it is a long haul, no-one can pretend that what we are doing is going to happen overnight or there is any quick fix for what is in some areas a particularly serious problem. I think all the Commission take the view that we have a job to do and we regard it as a very serious job and one which requires an enormous commitment, not so much on my part but on the part of those who are actually here today and who live in Northern Ireland, the different parts of it. As I say, I am sorry that Peter Quinn, who is the absent member, is absent because of illness. Rather than prolong my opening remarks I thought it might be more helpful, particularly as we have sent in a great deal of written information to the Committee, for me to take questions from whatever source. I think the intention was that I would answer most of them but, in fact, there may well be points that my colleagues would like to add to or, indeed, specifically answer or, indeed, it may be that Members of the Committee would particularly rather have a question directed towards a member of the Commission other than myself. We do not intend, as far as we are concerned, that we should each give an answer to every question.

  511. That sounds an admirable and constructively flexible position. Since the Commission last appeared before the Committee a complete marching season has elapsed. This was obviously the first marching season for most of the Commission other than those whom you mentioned. What assessment have you made, to ask a thoroughly pointed question, of your own handling of it? What lesson has the Commission drawn from the experience?
  (Mr Holland) It is very difficult for me or anybody else on the Commission to give an objective answer to that. I think that for the first few weeks, because we had to hit the ground running, so to speak, we found it quite difficult to absorb so much information and there were also staff changes that we had to contend with within the Commission itself. We had staff changes in fact throughout that period of March to September. My own view was that it had been in one sense more complex than I had personally realised but in another that we had actually made significant progress amongst ourselves in understanding some of those complex issues. I was told at the end that the season had been, from what I was told by local observers, far less troublesome than had been anticipated. I cannot really comment on that because I have no experience of what was anticipated or knowledge of what was anticipated. I thought that we had a reasonably successful time. There were some areas where, perhaps, we might have done things a little bit differently, you cannot be sure because obviously, particularly at the height of the season, we received something like 120 or 130 applications in the course of two or three days which all had to be processed and considered and that does take an awful lot of commitment. In fact, we sat for an entire working week, crossed over through a weekend on two occasions around August and the middle of July. After the end of the season, to go on to the second part of your question, we then decided to sit back and review where we had gone in relation to Portadown and whether we could anticipate proactively some movement there by putting forward initiatives of our own. As you know, Sir, we cannot actually mediate but we can promote mediation. We had two whole days and saw a great number of people involved in Portadown on that and took certain steps thereafter following those meetings. We have also had a further series of two day meetings since then.

  512. I think, given the nature of the question, that is very fair response. To what extent does the non-engagement policy of certain Loyal Orders act to reduce the effectiveness of the Commission?
  (Mr Holland) I think it reduces the effectiveness, perhaps, more with some than with others. Plainly, if you do not talk to the body that is actually making these decisions it means that the knowledge that that body acquires of the culture, or whatever lies behind that particular parade will never be as full as it would otherwise be. Whereas one can, as I have done, make informal perambulations around the Province from time to time to see and get a feel for something, this is not the same as where you engage with the people directly in the Commission's offices. It is like tying one of our hands behind our backs when we make decisions. Obviously there are some members of the Commission to whom the knowledge they would gain would be less than in my case. If you do not engage or do not have communication with the Commission it does mean that the fullness of knowledge that is otherwise obtained is not there.

  513. I have not been back over the evidence which was given to us in one of the sessions we had by the Loyal Orders. However, my recollection is in response to questions to us on the same subject they did allude to one letter they had written where they felt they had not received your response. I may be mis-remembering, it may go back before the life of your own Commission.
  (Mr Holland) Yes, I think you are right. It was a question that was asked of me last time and I could not give an answer and I had to write in with an answer. It had arisen in relation to the consultation about the guidelines, the procedure and the rules of conduct. There was obviously a misunderstanding of the consultation process, as my letter that I sent afterwards explained, on the part of the previous Commission, because in the end the consultation that was intended did not proceed. The view taken by that particular Loyal Order was that they had been slighted by that failure. It was however because there was a change of process rather than that particular Order being sidestepped or sidelined.

  514. That had been made clear to them at some stage?
  (Mr Holland) I believe it was. It happened before I took over, it was quite some time ago.

  515. We ourselves have had the experience that not everyone has been anxious to give us evidence. Has there been a basis on which you have been able to encourage people who have not been giving evidence to you, not so much in your case giving evidence, but being in communion with you to do so?
  (Mr Holland) I have had a lot of meetings with people I would not want to identify formally in an endeavour to get changes made. I am not entirely sure that still will not happen. That has been an on-going process over the past few months, more over the last four or five months than during the parading season, when there was not time to do that. I am not entirely pessimistic that the solutions that we hope for stemming from an engagement will be coming in the near future. One obviously becomes more optimistic when events justify it subsequently. I think there is hope there.

Mr Hunter

  516. Mr Holland, can I first put to you the question I put to the Northern Ireland Office a few weeks ago, which they could not answer, perhaps you will be able to, it runs like this: why when approval for a parade of bands is being sought does the Commission require on the relevant form the names and addresses of the organisers of each band that wishes to take part?
  (Mr Holland) That is a police requirement rather than our requirement.

  517. It is, perhaps, relevant to point out that when the police were asked this they said they knew anyhow.
  (Mr Holland) It was a police requirement on that form, which was redesigned last year.

  518. You may guess where I am leading. Can you then explain why the names and addresses of Protestant band organisers intending to take part in the bands parade in Maghera last summer were given to Sinn Fein?
  (Mr Holland) That was a dreadful mistake on the part of the Commission, for which I took full responsibility at the time and apologised. The reason it happened, if you want to get into the detail, was that at that particular time, I think it was the week where we have something like 120 applications, the fax machine that was used to fax that information was inadvertently fed with that particular page. When the person who did it realised exactly what had happened, they rang up the person to whom it was sent and we were assured it would be destroyed. It was the Commission's fault, nobody else's; it was a mistake on our part.

  519. Which, arguably, put people at risk?
  (Mr Holland) Possibly.

1   See Appendix 22, p 301. Back

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