Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 579 - 599)




  579. Minister, we owe you an apology. Apart from one happenstance in Belfast when for about two minutes, due to people leaving the room with slightly greater speed and frequency than they should have done, we did have to go into suspense for two minutes, until today, when we are three minutes late starting, this is the first time we have ever had a quorum problem, which, I say on behalf of the Committee, it is a good index of the morale of the Committee that we have only had these two accidents. It is very good of you to come here, Minister. You know the circumstances in which you are coming. We are in the process of composing our report, so it is particularly good of you to come at this particular moment. You know our ground rules, that if there is anything you want to gloss you should, either now or later, and if there is anything we want to follow up on we will in a supplementary question. Can I go first, unless there is anything you want to say—
  (Mr Ingram) Just to introduce again Mr David Watkins.

  580. We are delighted to see Mr Watkins. What has actually prompted this exchange is the provision by the Northern Ireland Office, in response to the Committee's request for sight of the Northern Ireland Office Review of the Parades Commission, of a rationale behind the recommendations rather than a copy of the Review findings or a summary of them. Sheer curiosity causes us to ask why that particular exchange should have occurred.
  (Mr Ingram) Can I say that the background to the Review we may want to touch upon, as to why it happened, and clearly you ask questions about the way in which it was conducted and the outputs from it, but it was always seen as being an internal review. It was set up on the basis of giving advice to Ministers and it was based upon a whole range of influences really. One, we were two marching seasons into the Parades Commission's formal activity after it had been fully established under the Act. Two, we had the pending change in the composition of the committee; a number of members, including the chairman, had indicated they did not wish to continue to serve, so we were reforming the Commission. We also had wider experience to draw upon. For those reasons, notwithstanding any other influences which were there, influences from others outside the purview of government who were critical in many ways of the way in which the Parades Commission had been operating, and questions had been asked about the way in which it had been established, the reason for the establishment of it, and the criticisms which were out there—it seemed appropriate therefore, with all those influences that we should consider the way in which the Parades Commission had been functioning. We therefore decided to do an internal review of that, which we hoped would give assistance to the new Commission which was going to be formed with a new chairman, and we could then, as I say, draw upon the experiences of the previous two marching seasons and all that flowed from that. So it was never our intention to publish the full report, although we did ask everyone who had expressed a point of view or we deemed were interested in this area to let us have the benefit of their wisdom and their views in all of this. I must say the very extensive range of responses received helped us to come to the conclusions which we did. Ministers then made judgments based upon the views of the officials which were then published, the conclusions of that, and then it was taken forward on one specific area, the early application of the Human Rights Act, which was due to be applied in October of that year; it was February we are talking about when this was being considered. We then reconsidered all of that again. So there was transparency in it inasmuch as everyone who had expressed a view was given an opportunity to have an input on the basis of the terms of reference and the outputs were published by way of recommendations, and the Parades Commission have sought to take them forward as best they can in any given set of circumstances.

  581. You have in that answer explained why you decided to carry out the Review of the Commission two years after the Commission started work, indeed after the first two seasons. How far—and I apologise if you are going over ground which to a degree you have gone over already—had concerns been expressed to you about the operations of the Commission up to the point when you decided to carry out the Review? I understand why you decided to carry out the Review when you did.
  (Mr Ingram) There was a whole range of influences. There were internal influences inasmuch as there was our own judgment as to what was desirable at that point in time; there was a good housekeeping approach in that we had established this new controversial body—and it was controversial—let us examine the way in which it was operating and delivering on its functions. As to representations made to me, I will need to check back in terms of any correspondence on that but it would be wrong for me to say there were no representations because Members from Northern Ireland were raising the issue with me direct, comments were being made, the Parades Commission had been raised in Northern Ireland Questions and they may have been based upon individual judgments of the Commission. I am sure my files would be replete with any amount of representations critical of the way the Commission had been operating, indeed the very establishment of the Commission. That was the climate of opinion. We were also at that time leading up to the establishment of the Review and the setting up of the Review. We had just come out of the attempts to try and find a way forward dealing with the very contentious Drumcree parade, and then looking at ways in which we could assist the Parades Commission to mediate and find answers to that. So there was a whole climate of attitude around which we have had to address, not least representations from the Loyal Orders themselves who were closely engaged anyway in trying to find a way forward to deal with specifically Drumcree, but the wider area of what could be classed as contentious determinations. I do not know if that helps.

  582. Yes, it does, but can I go one stage further? There were concerns which were expressed to you, and you have indicated how and in what form, but in the ultimate analysis was the Review your decision or was it—and I am not suggesting you were simply being reactive—prompted by what was being said to you? In other words, were you under pressure to have one?
  (Mr Ingram) Pressure is always there in Northern Ireland. We could not say we were not under pressure at any time. As you know from your previous experience, Chairman, pressure seems to be the order of the day, every day, in different shapes and forms. It was not a case of bowing to pressure, it was a case of recognising that there were pressure points out there. There were criticisms being raised, questions being raised, and it is probably more accurate to say that the ultimate decision was taken by the then Secretary of State rather than myself, who clearly as the—

  583. Sorry, when I said "you", I meant "Ministers".
  (Mr Ingram) The body corporate. There would have been intensive discussions at Ministerial level with senior officials to look at how we dealt with some of the criticisms coming forward, to see if there was a way of dealing with this in a structured and helpful way, recognising that by entering a Review hopes would be raised, not all those hopes would be met, so we were then perhaps creating further pressures because, again, that is an inevitability of any review, that someone will be happy and someone else will be disappointed. But we embarked upon it as a result of all those influences because we thought it right, it was appropriate at the time, and we felt that with the new Commission being established it would assist them in dealing with difficult areas which hitherto the previous Commission had not yet fully been able to resolve.

Mr McCabe

  584. You said a second ago, when you were thinking about the Review, hopes would be raised and not all would be satisfied. Is that how you would characterise the response to the announcement of the Review? Was it generally welcomed or what would you say the response was?
  (Mr Ingram) If I look at one of the strands of influences—maybe to use the Chairman's words, pressures—which was that the Parades Commission should be disbanded, any Review should have that as its prime function, to look at the efficacy of the Parades Commission, not just in terms of the detailed way in which it implemented the Act and the powers given to it but the very existence of that body. Undoubtedly that pressure was out there and that, of course, had been a very important aspect of the debate when the body was established in this House and in the other place as well. So there was disappointment around, there were criticisms around, no question at all about that, but we had to make a judgment as to what was right in that given set of circumstances, and not be seen simply to bow to untoward pressure, although by doing what we were doing we were taking on board some of the criticisms and saying, "Let's examine how best we can deliver the governance of this particular entity, this independent body which has been set up." So there was great disappointment out there and I suppose you will have heard some of it in the evidence you have heard here.

  585. Of course. Are you now in a position to say which bodies made submissions to the Review?
  (Mr Ingram) We could probably give you a full list on this,[1] Mr McCabe, Mr Chairman, but they were bodies such as the RUC, the Parades Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Loyal Orders, the churches, the political parties themselves and other bodies and individuals. They did not all say the same thing; there was a wide range of responses all alighting on different aspects, but in the main probably focusing on the way in which we had set up the terms of reference. One of the key areas which would have been considered was the whole question of an emphasis on the rights base approach, and there was this debate out there that there was a fundamental right of assembly, ie to march, and that was being challenged firstly by the establishment of the Parades Commission and secondly by the way it was being set up and being interpreted. So submissions from all those bodies alighted on that particular area, on other areas as well, and assisted us in our consideration of those issues. All of them were given very serious consideration because they were coming from authoritative bodies, maybe from diametrically opposed points of view but nonetheless we had to weigh their views in the balance.

  586. I think it probably would be useful if we could get the list at some stage, it would be helpful to our final Report, but would it be fair to assume that you were broadly satisfied that those who made submissions were representative of the range of relevant interests in Northern Ireland?
  (Mr Ingram) Absolutely. I do not think there is any question at all that of the wide range of people we asked and the responses we received, they were representing the broad spectrum of views which were out there.

Mr McGrady

  587. As far as the Northern Ireland Office Review is concerned (it may almost be deemed to be a Northern Ireland Office in-house review) as it were, I assume many recommendations were made to you, or to the Secretary of State rather. Were they all accepted by the Secretary of State? Were some rejected? If so, what areas or recommendations were rejected and why?
  (Mr Ingram) In many ways to answer that too directly would indicate the policy that goes up to Government Ministers should then be exposed and there then be a debate about what was and what was not accepted. There is the old tradition that that type of advice is not publicly exposed, for good reason, so that officials—I do not need to go through the full ramifications of this—can feel free to express any point of view they want on a subject and that hopefully allows Ministers to examine the full range of issues and bring to bear their own thoughts on the process as well. I think it would be fair to say that in general terms the terms of reference were specific and limited to certain areas, and there was a debate on the issue relating to the early application of the Human Rights Act and whether it should or should not be proceeded with, and the decision at the end of the day by Ministers—at the end it is always Ministers who make these decisions—was it was decided to proceed on that. I do not recollect any major conflict of views between officials and Ministers on that but, again, to answer you precisely I would need to go back into the record and expose those matters which hitherto Ministers do not usually expose.

  588. In other words, Chairman, it is not worth my while pursuing that particular avenue of questioning.
  (Mr Ingram) You can try and march down that road but I do not think we would get very far. I have tried to re-route it!

  589. We do know one of the Review's conclusions was that there should be, "an early application of the Human Rights Act to the Public Processions Act". I think you would not be betraying a confidence or creating a precedent if you were to let us know what bodies supported that conclusion and what bodies did not, and particularly for those bodies which did, not what rationale had they for not supporting the application of the Human Rights Act to the Public Processions Act.
  (Mr Ingram) ******

  590. ****** Even in general terms, could you not indicate to the Committee what was the reasoning or rationale behind those bodies who made representations to you that the Human Rights Act should not apply?
  (Mr Ingram) I cannot speak for those bodies and that is why I would hesitate slightly and I would not want even to seek to interpret in a shortened version the way in which they came to their conclusions on this, it is a matter for them. But the Parades Commission—and, remember, this was a newly constituted Parades Commission—took the view that they did not wish this to apply because they were then hard up against their first determinations and they felt this would not be appropriate, if I am remembering correctly the view adopted by them. The Human Rights Commission also took the view we should not proceed to the early implementation. You may have had a written submission from them or you may even have taken evidence from them, forgive me for not following the detail of that, and they may have set out their reasoning behind all that. We could only take their ultimate decision, I could not necessarily explain the reasoning behind that without going into all the correspondence relating to it. So those are two very important bodies which took that particular view.

  Mr McGrady: I thank you, Minister, for supplying that and look forward to the further possible explanations or information which you may wish to give to us.[2]

Mr Barnes

  591. As I am going to spread the net a bit wider than Mr McGrady, there might be the same problem about information being supplied. He was asking about the Review's conclusions on the early application of the Human Rights Act and what the reactions were to that. Could I ask generally, beyond that area, about the outcome of the Review. What reactions were there generally to it? What nature of reactions were taking place?
  (Mr Ingram) I think those who wanted a fundamentalist approach and adopted that as the complete disbandment of the Parades Commission would not have been happy with the outcome of the Review and were not happy with the Review anyway. Just casting my mind back to when we announced it, there were even questions within the Parades Commission itself as to why we were proceeding with this, that was this a reflection on the work of the Parades Commission, and we went to some lengths to explain to them, no, that was not the case and the reasons I gave in my opening answer encouraged them—that was the previously constituted Parades Commission—to recognise this was a constructive examination and may be helpful at the end of it. The new Parades Commission, of course, then were given the responsibility of implementing that, so in a sense I am sure they would have welcomed the outcome of it because it was a fine-tuning of the way in which they approached their business. But most of the attention would have been on the issue which we have just been discussing in terms of the early implementation or application of the Human Rights Act, and that was what the big debate would have been about, was it right or was it not right and, if so, why not in those cases. We then got into a very significant round of discussions with interested bodies into all of that, examining the recommendation that it should proceed, which ultimately became the decision not to proceed.

  592. I think the Committee will appreciate what the likely responses were of those who generally are opposed to the operation of the Commission and therefore how they would take the Review, and the human rights aspect has been dealt with. I was wondering if there were any other bits and pieces contained in the Review which were gaining responses from others as to what it was the Government was taking up?
  (Mr Ingram) The Parades Commission itself, in the area relating to the suggestion there should be a list of mediators published and that there should be a clearer approach on the way in which this was handled, took the view not to go down that road and publish the list of mediators. Again I suppose it was because they would feel those mediators could then come under undue influence. All of us understand Northern Ireland society, that where people are acting in goodwill it is not always welcomed by a minority, a very small minority, who then try and exercise influence on them, usually by intimidation and violence. So there was that reasoning, I think, they did not want those names to be too exposed, and we respected the view of the Parades Commission on that. One of the other areas which has not yet been fully implemented is on the recommendation of Outreach and the public awareness approach on this. The Parades Commission is working up a strategy at the present time, so it has not fully implemented all of those areas, perhaps because they have been so focused on having to deliver judgments on so many disputed parades and they may have left that to a later date outwith the marching season. Again that is a matter for them. We have not pushed them too hard on those areas because we respect their judgment. They are delivering a very difficult task on behalf of all of us and certainly on behalf of Government and we have to judge how best they go about their business.

Mr Beggs

  593. A full marching season has now elapsed since the Review concluded. What assessment can you now make of what was achieved by the Review?
  (Mr Ingram) Last year, Drumcree aside, would have been deemed to be a quiet marching season in the sense there was less violence. There was still a lot of tension about but nonetheless it was better handled by the various parties who were in dispute over marches and whatever else. The lessons we have learned are that, one, the review was the right approach, it was a healthy approach, it gave indications to the Parades Commission how best to move forward, they have sought to implement those recommendations as best they could. We have now got the Human Rights Act in place anyway and that obviously has impacted upon that key area that a lot of people focused on. Indeed there has been one court judgment as a result of a challenge under the Human Rights Act from someone who was opposing a Parades Commission determination. I do not know whether as a committee you are aware of the details of that, but again that can be made available to you. It is a court judgment, not a judgment of the Parades Commission and not a judgment of Government, but it does show that benefits can be gained from that type of interpretation of the legislation, and probably in retrospect it was right to let the courts be in existence for the whole of the Act rather than just focusing in on the Parades Commission and the Public Processions Act as it stood. If hindsight tells us anything, perhaps we rushed to judgment a wee bit in saying we should have the early implementation of it; the wiser counsel, with all the criticisms around at the time about not proceeding with it or seeking us not to proceed with it, proved to be right, and now we have the Act in place with judges and everyone else better trained and a better knowledge of that piece of legislation. So it was one of those judgments of Government which could have been better judged at the time but wiser counsel prevailed and the right decision was made at the conclusion of our considerations.

  594. Do you have any plans to review further the operation of the Parades Commission?
  (Mr Ingram) The answer is no, there is nothing stimulated within government, but we do await your Report with interest. Clearly if you are making recommendations then we are not just duty-bound but we would earnestly look at what you are suggesting to see if there are any lessons to be learned from the wide range of evidence you have gathered on this, and that may change our position, but at the moment there is nothing in government to say we should review it.

  595. Anecdotally, Chairman, I quite recently met with an American mayor who, faced with an application for a parade by the Klu Klux Klan, was well aware there was no support for it in his community, and the conclusion by himself and the council was, "Let's get this parade down that street, down that highway, as fast as possible" and it proceeded without interruption and without any adverse hostility.
  (Mr Ingram) Was there a question mark at the end of that, Mr Chairman!

  Mr Beggs: This was without the implementation and backing of human rights legislation.


  596. Insofar as there was a question at all, I think it was rhetorical.
  (Mr Ingram) Okay!

Mr Thompson

  597. In evidence we have heard there have been a number of occasions when the Parades Commission in fact admitted a determination to re-route the parade and it has taken more policeman in fact to carry out that determination than if the parade had been allowed to go on. Is that not rather a nonsensical situation where it costs a whole lot of extra resources and indeed increases and causes the antagonism of the Loyal institutions?
  (Mr Ingram) My judgement on that would be, no, it is not. These are very difficult judgments that the Parades Commission has to make. They do not make it on the basis of the cost element, but on the basis of what is right in terms of the powers which they have been given under the Act, and they take into account the view of those who may be opposed and then the impact of that in public order and disorder terms. I would not want policing in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else in the United Kingdom, to be judged on the basis of what it costs but on the basis of what is right, and that is the way the Parades Commission seeks to act at all times and, importantly, the police and those who support the police would then respond to the rule of law.

  598. As you know, when the Bill went though the House of Commons many of us argued that some parts were contrary to human rights. If representations were made to the Government, would the Government be prepared to look at the legislation again?
  (Mr Ingram) No matter where it was coming from, we would always have to respond to those type of requests. If it was coming from an eminent body such as this, clearly the answer would be that it would be given heavy consideration and we would respond in a public way to such a request. But I think the fact that the Human Rights Act is now in place, the fact there has now been one judgment on a challenge by someone who was objecting to a determination of the Parades Commission, means we have now got a body of law out there which allows the Parades Commission to make further judgments on that. It gives them surety because they found in their favour, in a sense; it gives them surety that they are doing the right thing. They were told that all law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland would respect that law and that judgment and if it was successfully challenged then another body of law would be in place. But when the rule of law applies, people should observe it.

  599. Has the Northern Ireland Office considered the judgment that was made, because there were some possible queries in that judgment about compatibility and other things, and we have heard from the Commission that they may have to look again at their guidelines as a result of it. Has the Department looked at that?
  (Mr Ingram) Again, we would take the view that we would look at it ourselves, we would give consideration to that judgment, and given the flavour of it and the way in which we have responded to it I think the Commission—and I do not know whether you are talking about the Parades Commission or the Human Rights Commission—

1   See Ev p 186. Back

2   Evidence not reported. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 19 July 2001