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1 July 2008 : Column 172WH—continued

The stance of the Garvaghy Road residents coalition is entirely negative and appears to be designed to prevent rather than assist any engagement or dialogue aimed at resolving the situation. It serves only to reinforce the view held by a growing number of people that there is no willingness on the part of Garvaghy road residents to arrive at any form of local accommodation or at any long-term resolution of the dispute. It also goes some way towards confirming the view that, despite movement on the part of the loyal orders collectively, as well as on the part of Portadown district and the Government,
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who established the Ashdown review, the one constituent part of this dispute that has refused to move is the Garvaghy Road residents coalition.

That, of course, raises questions for the Parades Commission and the Government. There is near-universal agreement that the way to resolve the local problem is for local people to do it. That is also the stated position of the Parades Commission. There is agreement on the part of the loyal orders to work towards a new beginning to parading in Northern Ireland, and on the part of Portadown district to do its part locally. There is absolutely no agreement on the part of the Garvaghy road residents coalition to play its part. Despite that, the Parades Commission continues to reward the group for its non-dialogue, non-engagement and non-discussion, by continuing to issue determinations about the parade that give the Garvaghy road group everything it demands, on the grounds that non-engagement and non-dialogue have made it impossible to establish a dialogue process.

At my last meeting with the Parades Commission I suggested that one way to move the Garvaghy road residents coalition in the direction of dialogue was to issue a post-dated determination to the effect that, if discussions did not begin by a certain date, it would issue a determination that would allow the parade to return to Carleton street in Portadown. That would have pressurised the Garvaghy road residents group finally to get around the table. What was the Parades Commission response? Nothing: zero. Instead it continues to say that it wants dialogue. That dialogue is the way ahead, but it has been prevented, because the Garvaghy road residents coalition will not agree to it. Yet the commission continues to give the coalition exactly what it wants, so what incentive is there for the coalition to talk?

I ask the Minister whether that is acceptable. Should people be rewarded for non-dialogue and non-engagement? Should the Parades Commission issue the determinations sought by the Garvaghy road residents coalition on the grounds that it refuses to play any part in reaching a local accommodation? I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to have all the answers today, but I ask him to give as full a response as he can.

Northern Ireland has been through many difficult times and many dark years. There is a desire among the vast majority of people in the Province to move forward. Only a very small number of people and groups wish to keep us all locked in the past. If the Garvaghy road residents coalition is one of those groups, the Parades Commission has a duty to ensure that that does not happen. If the commission refuses to do its duty, the Government, too, have a duty to intervene and crack Parades Commission heads together.

Brendan McKenna should signal his willingness to move out of the past and towards the light, along with other elements of society. If he fails to do so, the Parades Commission and the Minister should signal their intention to end the intransigence of Mr. McKenna and his organisation. The people of the Garvaghy road, Portadown, Craigavon and more importantly Northern Ireland deserve no less.

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10.3 am

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs. Humble. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing the debate. At the start of his remarks, he reminded us that it is the anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme, and it is important to remember the sacrifice made by the whole community in Northern Ireland at the Somme and other battles in which Britain engaged in the last century.

It is welcome that we can debate the issue of parades in Northern Ireland at a time when the wider context in relation to parades is improving. The 2006 and 2007 marching seasons passed off more peacefully than at any other time in recent history. In fact, 2006 marked the first time in more than 30 years that the Army was not called in to support the police. That was largely due to the efforts of community leaders and march organisers to keep talking, ensuring that a local accommodation was reached in many cases. It is only right that we should pay tribute to their efforts and give them our support as we enter this year’s marching season.

Nevertheless, parades remain a source of dispute and a threat to peace, stability, prosperity and the creation of a shared future. The issue of parading and its associated problems is a concern not just for the two sides in any particular dispute, but for the entire community. Disputes relating to parading are both a symptom of much wider community relations problems in Northern Ireland, and a contributory factor to them. Problems over parades are in many respects a by-product of the division of Northern Ireland into a society based around two communities. Territory becomes labelled as belonging to one or other side. When tensions arise over parades, there is a danger of further entrenchment of identity and division.

There is a fundamental choice to be made in Northern Ireland: accepting deep divisions in Northern Ireland and trying to manage them, or working to create a shared and integrated society. In 2005, the Government adopted as policy the document “A Shared Future: Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland”. Subsequently, in 2006, they put in place the first triennial action plan. The Government recognised that the human, social and financial costs of trying to manage a divided society were unsustainable and that the only viable way forward was through the creation of a shared future.

It is critical that the future of parades in Northern Ireland should be considered in the context of the “Shared Future” agenda. In relation to that, there should be a stop to accepting that territory belongs to one or other side of the community. Existing mixed areas such as town centres should be protected from becoming dominated by a particular group and mixed housing should be strongly promoted.

It is unfortunate that parades continue to have a net negative impact on the Northern Ireland economy. In the recent past, violence surrounding disputed parades, public disorder and the blocking of roads, whether focused in particular areas or more widespread, have had direct economic consequences as businesses have closed. In addition, such activity interferes with the free movement of people and goods, and deters economic
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and other social activities. The Deloitte report of April 2007 on the financial cost of the divide in Northern Ireland set out the costs of lost inward investment and tourism stemming from the troubles and a segregated society. For example, the problems arising from the Whiterock parade in September 2005 had a direct negative impact on inward investment.

The Deloitte report considers the various negative impacts of the divide. The Northern Ireland economy remains underdeveloped—in particular its tourist sector. For a considerable portion of the month of July, much of Northern Ireland slows down or even closes down. In particular, a greater range of businesses close on 12 July than on any other day of the year, with the exception of Christmas day. Northern Ireland has a potentially strong tourist product to offer, but during July there is a net loss of population in the region and many hotels and guest houses have their quietest period. The situation has, however, improved over the past two years, and it is important to look to the future. However, the economic consequences of disputes about parades, and the resultant impact on the entire community, must be recognised.

Disputes over parades often come down to a clash of claimed rights: a right to parade and a right to prevent a parade that is not consistent with the ethos of an area. I do not believe that either of those claims is absolute. As well as the right to take part in a parade, it must be recognised that there is a right for people who are not taking part in a parade to have freedom of movement, and for businesses to conduct their affairs without interference.

Ten years ago, the Parades Commission was established with the following duties: to promote greater public understanding of issues concerning public processions, to promote and facilitate mediation as a means of resolving disputes concerning public processions and to keep itself generally informed of the conduct of public processions and protest meetings.

David Simpson: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the establishment of the Parades Commission and its duties. Does he agree that, by and large, it has failed to carry out its duties?

Mr. Reid: No, I do not agree. I think that the situation has improved, particularly in the past two years. There have been tremendous strides forward, and the Parades Commission has played a part in that. It is by no means perfect, and changes must be made, but we must recognise that the situation has improved since its establishment.

The commission has powers to facilitate mediation between parties to disputes concerning proposed parades and to issue determinations in respect of particular proposed parades. I have concerns about the Parades Commission’s mandate; I do not believe that the dual mandate to arbitrate and mediate is sustainable in the long run. One major problem is that, in determining whether a certain parade may pass along a certain street in a certain area, the Parades Commission effectively determines which community that street and area belong to. The commission has also been restricted by having to prioritise judicial concerns over any sense of what is considered reasonable. Furthermore, it has restricted certain behaviour and symbols to certain areas rather than determining acceptable behaviour and display in general.

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It would be helpful if any future arbitrator of parades had the ability to determine, for example, that a single parade in a certain location is reasonable but several such parades, even by the same people on the same route, are not; that certain types of behaviour such as the display of paramilitary symbols, drunkenness, high noise levels and so on are universally unacceptable; and that certain standards of behaviour can be expected by all people whose businesses or homes are affected by the parade, regardless of their community background or political affiliation or those of the parade organisers.

The strategic review of parading in Northern Ireland, chaired by Lord Ashdown, published an interim consultative report in April. The review team outlined a number of principles to be followed in relation to parading, such as the need for local dialogue and local agreement, standards for the conduct of public assemblies and independent adjudication. The review team’s strong emphasis on a rights-based approach to resolving disputes is welcome, as the process whereby a communal identity was given to territory was deeply flawed. It is also extremely helpful to have a clear set of procedures and structures. There is little to fear and much to gain from a radical review of the policy and structures for handling disputed parades. Of course, full public debate is needed on the review’s analysis and recommendations.

Although we have made tremendous strides in the past few years, it is time to move on to a situation in which mediation, and arbitration and adjudication, are carried out separately. Although we have moved forward during the Parades Commission’s time, it is far from perfect. Moving to a situation in which mediation and adjudication are handled separately is important.

I hope that the political parties in Northern Ireland will demonstrate courage and leadership in showing the way forward and trying to achieve the vision, described in the strategic review team’s report, of a society where parades and protests are no longer the focus or cause of community conflict, in which cultural celebration takes place peacefully and respectfully and which is characterised by tolerance, human rights, equality and confidence in a future shared by all.

10.14 am

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am delighted to be speaking from the Front Bench under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I am standing in at the last moment for my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who has unfortunately had to go to hospital.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this debate on an important subject for Northern Ireland. He spoke with conviction and a great knowledge of parading and its history. It is important for the future of Northern Ireland. He gave an honest and frank progress report on the issues and highlighted some of the problems that still lie before us and that must be addressed if we are to proceed peacefully in future.

The milestone of shared government is a significant step towards the success story that we all want and hope for in Northern Ireland, but as this debate has highlighted, there is still a long way to go. Sensitive issues such as parading in Northern Ireland must be resolved to achieve a future for the province that encompasses intercommunity co-operation and toleration.

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As we have heard, Northern Ireland has a strong tradition of parading. Parades are an intrinsic part of its culture and identity and have been since the 16th century, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann pointed out. Unfortunately, in more recent times, political turmoil in Northern Ireland has led sectarian groups to use parades as a way to advance their cause. As a result, parades have become increasingly controversial. Although they form a part of Northern Ireland’s heritage, they have been blamed for facilitating sectarian tensions and the violence that often ensues. Sadly, as we are all aware, many instances of violence have broken out during parades. The police have been criticised for not monitoring them effectively, the Parades Commission has been labelled politically weak and the Orange Order does not recognise its authority.

How can parades and parading remain a viable part of Northern Ireland’s culture and identity in a way that is consistent with social and political cohesion? The strategic review provides Northern Ireland with an opportunity to tackle parading head-on in a way that embraces cross-community solutions. I pay tribute to the noble Lord Ashdown for undertaking the review and compliment him on the diverse group of people he involved in the process. The widest possible consultation was sought and all interested parties were encouraged to take part in the review process. That approach is to be encouraged and commended. Moves to resolve sensitive issues in that way will, I hope, temper the fear and hostility still present within the communities of Northern Ireland, which could become inflamed during the parading season.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the review’s key recommendations so far, which were outlined in the interim report published in April. They are set out in six important steps. Organisers of public assemblies should consider all aspects of their intended event and, where possible, identify any issues that may arise from it. Organisers must notify local councils of any intention to hold a gathering no less than 35 days before the event by submitting a notification form. The council will inform any interested parties, such as the Police Service of Northern Ireland and emergency services, and will make that notification publicly accessible. Any objections to the public assembly must be lodged with the local council within seven days of publication, and those objections will in turn be made public.

Where possible, any objections or concerns will be dealt with by direct contact between the organisers and objectors. When agreement is reached, the assembly may take place. If any concerns are not resolved through direct contact between organisers and objectors, the local council will organise and assume responsibility for further discussions. If no agreement has been reached by that stage, the local council must inform the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and an independent mediator will be appointed on a case-by-case basis.

When mediation is refused or fails, the OFMDFM will initiate the adjudication process. If no agreement is reached at least 14 days prior to the proposed assembly date, the matter will be referred to the OFMDFM for final adjudication. The adjudication panel’s decision is legally binding, and for all assemblies referred to it a post-event review must take place no later than 35 days after the event.

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The gist of the proposals is to place parading within a coherent and mutually agreed framework to provide some structure to the events. In that way, parades could be monitored and regulated more effectively in the same way as they would be in any other European democracy. We must recognise, therefore, that the recommendations would spell the end of the Parades Commission. If the review’s proposals are implemented, how does the Minister envisage using the commission’s decade-long experience to best effect? The Orange Order refuses to recognise the commission’s authority, but initial reports hint that the order has indicated its support for some of the review’s proposals. My hon. Friend was quite clear about which proposals are viable. However, how optimistic is the Minister that that initial enthusiasm will last? Does he envisage the new system, if implemented, overcoming the problems faced by the commission.

The interim report acknowledges that there are no quick-fix solutions, but looks to inter-community dialogue as the keystone to peaceful parades. Clearly, the success of implementing any of the recommendations will depend on the initial co-operation of nationalist and Unionist groups. Has the Minister had any negative or positive feedback from relevant groups on either side of the political spectrum? I understand that the Social Democratic and Labour party has expressed concerns about some of the recommendations. Although the intention to address the parading issue through a new approach is commended, does he agree that any new structure will come up against the same challenges faced by existing ones?

There is also a danger that the transfer of any responsibilities from the Parades Commission to the new OFMDFM might well result in the latter becoming a quango. A system in which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister play central roles in parade matters might politicise parading, instead of depoliticising it, which surely is our primary aim. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

The report also advocates a strong role for local councils. Does the Minister accept that council officers’ political allegiances might—I repeat might—have a detrimental effect on the mediation process? Does he recognise the need to put in place safeguards against that? Councils could well be seen as too partisan, and there are legitimate concerns that their role could undermine the mediation stage.

Parades in Northern Ireland have come to symbolise the political and social tensions that exist as undercurrents in the Province predominantly as a result of the violence so closely related to the parades at Drumcree and Ormeau road, and the review team acknowledge that they have yet to come to a conclusion on how to proceed where those parades are concerned. I accept that they will focus on the parades at the next stage of their consultation process. However, will the Minister join me in stressing how crucial it is for the tensions surrounding those two parades, and others, to be addressed urgently? Does he find it worrying that although the review team has made some useful general proposals, they cannot agree on perhaps the most contentious parades, which more than others require clear guidance?

The interim report states:

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