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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 July 2008

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Parading (Northern Ireland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Siobhain McDonagh.]

9.30 am

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): May I say at the outset, Mrs. Humble, that it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship? I thank the Minister, who is responsible for security in Northern Ireland, for being here with his staff. I know that he had another engagement this morning in Belfast, and I greatly appreciate the fact that he gave it up to be here.

The debate is about parading in Northern Ireland. I intend to show that the issue is one of a number of outstanding matters that must be resolved before Northern Ireland can truly be said to have reached the end of its long journey towards normality. I intend to show that issues such as parading have the potential to hold back the Province unless they are satisfactorily resolved. I also intend to highlight progress that has been made on the subject of parading, and to speak of matters that still require attention. I hope, too, to point out Government responsibilities in that regard.

I am pleased to have succeeded in securing this debate, especially when I consider the date. That we should meet on 1 July is truly appropriate, and almost poetic. Under the old calendar, it was 1 July 1690 when William, Prince of Orange, defeated King James at the River Boyne. That had massive and positive benefits for the House of Commons, with parliamentary democracy in Britain, the widening of religious liberty, the guaranteeing of the freedom of the press and the protecting and enshrining of civil and religious liberties for all.

Whenever I think of the positive benefits for the United Kingdom as a whole that resulted from the Williamite revolution, commonly called the Glorious Revolution, I am amazed that the Speaker’s Office does not join with the Prime Minister’s office in hosting a demonstration in Westminster on 12 July. It would be a real confidence-building measure for the people of Northern Ireland, and I would love to see it happen.

That date recalls other collective memories for Northern Ireland. It was on that day that the bravest and noblest of our youth, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, did battle amid the mud and slaughter of the Somme. One writer put it like this:

The true cost was terrible. By the end of the first day, Britain had suffered 60,000 casualties. When the battle finally ended, Britain had suffered 420,000 casualties, France 200,000, and Germany about 650,000.

As we gather in the Chamber, on this day of all days, it behoves us to remember that the young men in our armed forces, who serve this nation so bravely and gallantly, are not chocolate-box soldiers. Rather, they
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risk their all for our freedom. As we gather here today, many of them find themselves in arenas of bitter conflict in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. We would do well to hold them in our hearts and remember them in our prayers; we should hold them in high esteem.

To return to the subject of the debate, we should ask ourselves what it was that made former generations stand and fight, often to fall and die, in two world wars and in other conflicts across the globe. Surely it was to preserve the principles of civil and religious liberty that were brought so much to the fore in the aftermath of the Williamite revolution. Sadly, for people in my constituency in the town of Portadown, in other towns in the Province such as Dunloy, and in parts of Belfast, the true expression of those dearly-won liberties and rights is denied them. Sadder still, that denial is facilitated by the actions, and more often the inaction, of Government.

It should be fairly clear to all that, as we look to the future, parading in Northern Ireland is one of the issues that remain outstanding and unresolved. It is not the only such issue. There are others—the need for the IRA and other paramilitary organisations to be completely stood down; the need to move away from mandatory coalition; the need to prioritise matters for the victims and survivors of the troubles; and the need to ensure that Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of the United Kingdom is respected in everyday life. Those are all hugely significant, and they demand close attention. Only when such issues are settled will we be able to say with confidence that we are at the end of what has been a very long road. I trust that we will reach that point.

For years, we have been dogged by republicans threatening to walk away, and time after time, the Government calculated that keeping Sinn Fein sweet was preferable to the integrity of democratic principles, the continuance of democratic institutions and the agreements that they had reached with Northern Ireland parties. Consequently, instead of standing up to threats and telling Sinn Fein to live with their negotiated position and live life on the same terms as every other political party, the Government chose a path that undermined every other political party to Sinn Fein’s advantage.

Sinn Fein is again attempting to blackmail the Government, who should break with old habits and call a halt to punishing everyone else because of Sinn Fein’s failings. There will be absolutely no toleration of the rewarding of such behaviour. We shall have to wait to see whether the Government pass that test or, as has happened so often in the past, whether they fail in their duty. Today’s debate is about one such outstanding issue: parading. There can be little doubt that the question of parading still requires resolution. In making that statement, it is apparent that in my opinion it is not yet resolved. Some progress has been made, and I intend to touch on it, but work still needs to be done.

A lot of work has been done in recent times, and the Government have made a positive contribution in some areas. I think of moves relating to the de-rating of Orange halls and the proposed amendments to the way in which compensation is paid in the aftermath of an attack on an Orange hall. Those were long-standing Democratic Unionist party objectives, and I am pleased that we have seen movement on both issues. I could not let the matter pass without saying that the suggested three-year sunset clause effectively undermines the object of the proposal. Surely the purpose was to remove any
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incentive from people who would carry out such attacks. The insertion of a sunset clause would simply suspend the attacks, not end them, nor bring about the required reduction in insurance premiums. I ask the Government to think again about that measure. I believe that the issue was allowed to drag on for far too long, but I shall not dwell on it: suffice to say that it has been mentioned and noted.

There was concern about the reaction of some people to the Government’s compensation announcement on Orange halls. I am thinking, for example, of the reaction of Sinn Fein’s Barry McElduff, who complained about it and called it a sectarian move on the grounds that it excluded Gaelic Athletic Association clubs. Nationalist and republican politicians cannot have it both ways. The GAA has long said that it is a sporting organisation, just like amateur football, cricket, pigeon fancying or snooker clubs. Nationalist and republican politicians have long sought to characterise the loyal orders—the institution—as religiously sectarian organisations that display a religious supremist world view. However, when it came to that announcement, people such as Barry McElduff chose to compare the GAA not with other sporting organisations, but with organisations that they have painted as extreme religious sectarian organisations. Nationalist and republican politicians cannot expect to have it every way. Either the GAA is a sporting organisation sitting alongside others, or it is not. The reaction of nationalist and republican politicians revealed what they believe to about the true nature of the GAA and their inner depths. There are clearly issues for nationalist and republican political representatives to resolve, and I trust that they will do so.

Some very good work has been done through the Northern Ireland Assembly on parading and the institution. Two Northern Ireland Departments in particular deserve praise, namely the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Both have done good work to help promote the positive side of Northern Ireland’s parading culture and to offer practical assistance to the loyal orders. DCAL amended the way in which the community festival fund is administered to make it easier for such groups to access funding in the Province. The DETI Minister has linked up with the loyal orders to promote the tourism potential of parading. Those are good developments, and there have been others. The fact that both the Ministers concerned are from the Democratic Unionist party is not lost on me, nor, I suspect, is it lost on our political opponents.

The loyal orders themselves have initiated movement by, for example, controlling the use of alcohol consumption at parades, arranging better marshalling and promoting community participation in the cultural aspect of parading. It is only correct to mention the work of the joint loyal orders working group, which set about creating a new framework within which parades and other high-impact public events could occur. The initiative initially drew together the leaderships of the Orange Order, the Royal Black institution and the Independent Orange Order. They deserve the highest praise for their efforts. People such as Robert Saulters, grand master of the Orange institution in Ireland, and Mr. William Logan of the Royal Black institution, deserve credit for their work.
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Particular praise needs to be directed to two other people who drove forward the work of that joint task force: Mr. Drew Nelson, grand secretary of the Orange Order, and my party colleague and friend, the late and greatly missed George Dawson, former Member of the Legislative Assembly and grand master of the Independent Orange Order. Working in tandem, Drew Nelson and George Dawson gave shape and voice to what the loyal orders were calling for. In the process, they helped to bring a large degree of healing to the internal wounds with which the Orange family had lived for more than a hundred years. They both deserve the thanks of all Orangemen and women in all branches of the family.

The initiative taken by the joint loyal orders working group led to a review of parading, which was announced by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That in turn resulted in the establishment of the strategic review of parading chaired by Lord Ashdown, which has recently reported. Among the Ashdown group’s key recommendations was the emphasis on dialogue and mediation. It is of huge significance that that initially received a positive response from the loyal orders. In a recent statement, the Orange Order said:

That, I believe, was a very positive response. Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd said:

He continued:

Mr. O’Dowd appears to have accepted that the issue of parading remains unresolved and that it must be resolved finally on a long-term basis if we are to move forward.

The only discordant notes came from two sources—one was no great surprise, but the other may surprise some in the House. The entirely unsurprising and utterly predictable rejection came from some residents groups, particularly those from the Ormeau road in Belfast and the Garvaghy road in Portadown. Those reactions came as no real surprise and were entirely expected responses.

Some within the confines of Westminster might be surprised to learn that the other main rejection of the report came from sections of the Social Democratic and Labour party. I said “sections”, because there was a very clear division in the SDLP over the report. On the one hand, Declan O’Loan, who is the North Antrim SDLP MLA, said:

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When we turn to another SDLP Assembly Member, we get the directly opposite position. Dolores Kelly, who is the MLA for Upper Bann, said:

She went on to describe the proposals as “absolute madness”.

We are entitled to ask just where the SDLP stands on all this. Is it with Declan O’Loan or with Dolores Kelly? Is it for or against dialogue? Is it for or against engagement? Is it for or against local accommodation? Does it believe that it is acceptable to refuse to engage? Does it believe that a refusal to engage should be rewarded? Given the comments of Dolores Kelly, who serves not only on the Assembly, but on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, those questions need to be answered.

That brings me to what really lies at the core of any move forward on the issue of parades. In recent times, we have witnessed significant movement on many aspects of public life in the Province. Northern Ireland is slowly beginning to move forward from the horrors of the past. Changes have taken place right across society, although some have been difficult for people to accept. There have been changes involving the loyal orders. The joint loyal orders working group on parading has engaged with people as diverse as Cardinal Brady, the SDLP and the Human Rights Commission. It has also indicated a willingness to sit down with and assist the Ashdown review.

The Portadown district, which is in my constituency, recently met Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, which was a difficult step for it to take. More than 300 members of the loyal orders were brutally murdered by republican terrorists during the troubles. Gerry Adams himself claimed the credit for Sinn Fein for the disrupting of parades and the denial of basic liberties to Orangemen and women. On one occasion, he said:

He was also quoted as saying that such situations had to be “developed and exploited”.

Mark Davenport, BBC Northern Ireland’s political correspondent, subsequently said:

The meeting with Gerry Adams was difficult for the Portadown brethren. Afterwards, Gerry Adams said that it had

One can only hope that what he now says was always Sinn Fein’s position represents new thinking on his part and that of his party.

On parading, there remains one section of society that steadfastly refuses to move—some of the residents groups. In Portadown, for instance, we have the ongoing Drumcree-Garvaghy road dispute, which is synonymous with the issue of parading as a result of press coverage in recent years. The local Portadown district has stated openly and publicly that it wants to engage in dialogue. It has said that it will do so without putting any pre-conditions on the table.

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The Parades Commission has said that it sees dialogue as the only way to resolve the matter. Every political party claims to believe that dialogue is the way forward, and the Government are of the publicly stated view that dialogue is the way forward. However, the Garvaghy Road residents coalition refuses to consider the matter. According to the coalition, there is nothing to discuss, and any attempt to hold discussions would be to follow party political agendas and attempt to suppress the population. It therefore sees no need for any discussion or dialogue.

Recently, the Garvaghy Road residents coalition said:

In its editorial column, the local newspaper, the Portadown Times, has been scathing of that stance. Recently, the Parades Commission complained that it had been unable to set up a dialogue process because of “non co-operation” on the part of the residents group. Just last week, the district master of the Portadown Orangemen, Mr. Darryl Hewitt, repeated their willingness to engage in face-to-face negotiations and dialogue with the Garvaghy Road residents coalition. He repeated publicly that the Orangemen were willing to do so without preconditions.

What was the coalition’s response? Brendan McKenna was repeatedly asked live on air on BBC Radio Ulster whether he would engage in that dialogue with the Orange brethren. On each occasion, he refused to give such a commitment. Despite the fact that the Portadown district had publicly repeated its commitment to dialogue without preconditions, Mr. McKenna said that he still saw preconditions in the district’s statement. The question that must be asked in all this is just how willing Brendan McKenna and the Garvaghy Road residents coalition are to find an accommodation on the issue of the Garvaghy road.

The Parades Commission handed down the very determination sought by Brendan McKenna. It rewarded his refusal to enter discussions, to engage in dialogue and to participate in negotiations. It encouraged him to continue to sit on his hands and do absolutely nothing to move the situation forward, to improve community relations or to reach any local accommodation with his neighbours. This individual should not hold up progress on finding an accommodation. Equally, he should not hold back the community in the vicinity of the Garvaghy road or further afield across Portadown and Craigavon. Nor should the Parades Commission continue to reward the Garvaghy Road residents coalition for its refusal to discuss these issues. Such a situation would not be good for community relations, jobs, investment or prosperity in the area.

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