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Sadly, the same tensions and deep-set hostilities that undermine peace during parades are bound to create challenges for those aiming to establish an overarching framework for parading in the future.

To bring investment and prosperity to Northern Ireland, it is crucial that we get our approach right. All those involved in the consultation process, from both sides of the political divide, must work together as effectively as possible to ensure that we get to a stage where the parades can pass peacefully. The timing of the review is crucial, and we must get it right now to secure a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. Engagement between nationalist residents’ groups and the Orange Order is key, and one person should not be allowed to hold back the process, as my hon. Friend pointed out.

The review is a work in progress, but we are heading in the right direction. If the final report is published in autumn, does the Minister think that the timetable for implementation in spring 2009 is realistic? Given the considerable hostility from some factions to the interim report’s findings, how does he expect to reconcile those views with those of the more enthusiastic supporters? How does he expect to implement the final report’s recommendations? Does he anticipate having to legislate, and if not how will he enforce them, especially given the apparent resource implications for local authorities? What estimates has he made of the financial implications of the interim recommendations?

I am open to ideas on different and more incisive approaches to this highly contentious issue, and look forward to the review’s final recommendations. Like others, I also look forward to a peaceful parade season.

10.26 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) on securing this opportunity to raise such a crucial issue, because it is very important that we continue to discuss Northern Ireland matters in this place. He started by explaining that today is a good day to have this discussion, and took us as far back as 1690. He also mentioned the parade at Drumcree, and reminded us of the anniversary today and of those who fell at the battle of the Somme, and I can confirm that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has joined others in France to commemorate that time. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman was generous enough to acknowledge that, were I not here today, I would have been at city hall in Belfast marking the day with colleagues there. I was grateful to him for acknowledging that. As others have said, it is appropriate that today we remember those who fell at the battle of the Somme. It is also appropriate to pay tribute to those serving our country and the cause of freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

The hon. Gentleman drew his remarks to a close by referring to Drumcree, which of course remains the most contentious parade in Northern Ireland. Whatever our role in the story of Northern Ireland, we all remember the scenes of violence and disruption that occurred there in the middle of the 1990s. They remain vivid, and none of us wishes to return to such scenes. From conversations that I have had with him and many others, I know that Drumcree can still raise those levels of emotion in Northern Ireland. That needs to be
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considered very carefully. However, I am absolutely clear, as is he, that if we are to find a sustainable solution to the problems with parading, we must include a solution to Drumcree. We cannot pretend that we have found a sustainable solution, if that matter remains unresolved. It is pertinent therefore that he raised it in this debate.

It might sound hackneyed, but that does not make it any less true that cross-community dialogue remains a prerequisite to a solution to Drumcree. Engagement is necessary, and a solution simply cannot be imposed from the outside and above.

David Simpson: The hon. Gentleman indicated that the way forward is through dialogue, but does he agree that, in order for that to happen, both sides must be willing to engage?

Paul Goggins: I readily acknowledge that, if we are to have dialogue, two parties are required to have the conversation. That conversation must take place sooner or later if we are to have a solution. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. I know of the difficulties involved and I know of his role in trying to promote dialogue and to get people to a point at which decisions can be made across the community. I know some of the difficulties that others have faced as they have tried to broker those talks and conversations over many years, and I pay tribute to all those who have tried to get a resolution.

I am encouraged, however, rather than discouraged, not least because of the efforts that have been made by Darryl Hewitt, the district master of Portadown District LOL No. 1, and his colleagues. I have met them on a couple of occasions, and I readily acknowledge that they have made efforts to engage and to move forward. They have made efforts that were real risks in relation not only to the other community but to those in their own organisation who might be critical of the steps that they have taken—but they have still taken them. They have engaged with the Parades Commission, which was contentious and difficult, but they did it. They have met Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, which was a controversial but important step forward, and they have even met me. They are prepared to engage with anyone who they believe can help to move things forward and produce a solution. I have no doubt that they have gone a considerable way to reach out, to try to engage and to find a solution.

Comments have been made about the Parades Commission and its role. I know, from certain conversations, that people sometimes feel frustration either that the commission has made a decision that they do not like or that it has not made a decision that they would like it to make, but that is the territory that it has to operate in. Since the chairman of the commission began his remit in January 2006, he has worked with his colleagues and has tried to get out of the office and around Northern Ireland, and there has been a period of sustained, relatively peaceful parading. I pay tribute to those in the commission who have played a role in that. There has been an increase in the number of notified parades in recent years, but the number of contentious parades that have had restrictions placed on them, which are a minority, has reduced. Credit for that goes partly to the commission, but I think that commission members
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would acknowledge that it should go mainly to people at the local level who, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said, have engaged in difficult conversations and come to accommodations and agreements so that there are voluntary agreements in place. They should take a great deal of credit. That is the kind of development that we want and need in Drumcree.

The fact that one party has made such considerable efforts does not necessarily make it straightforward or easy to impose a solution, with all the risk that that involves. That is why it is important that the message goes out from the hon. Member for Upper Bann—indeed, from all hon. Members who have contributed this morning, including me—that dialogue is an absolute prerequisite to finding a solution. I am convinced that, in the current climate, a solution is possible. We are faced with a unique opportunity in the period ahead in which we can strive for an answer regarding Drumcree and other outstanding and difficult parades. Why? Because the strategic review has said that when it publishes its final report it wants to bring forward proposals on how those legacy parades—it mentions Drumcree and the Ormeau Road in particular—can be dealt with. Obviously, the review cannot magic up a solution, as that must be worked for by all the parties involved, but the final report is an opportunity to seek a solution.

We have achieved the first stage of devolution and we are moving towards its completion, in the near future I hope, with policing and justice powers being handed over. That provides us with a climate and context in which outstanding issues need to be resolved, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, not least in relation to parading.

The parading this year shows that there has been sustained and significant progress. When I arrived as a new Minister in Northern Ireland, just over two years ago, in my first briefing, I was shown film footage of the shocking scenes of violence in Whiterock in 2005. It was clear that part of my responsibility was to work with others at all levels to ensure that we never return to such scenes. Through a process of dialogue and, sometimes, determinations from the Parades Commission, we have got to a much better place with parading.

The fruits of dialogue have been that the Tour of the North parade on 20 June passed off peacefully because people made accommodations and reached an agreement that worked in practice. When parties could not agree regarding Whiterock, last Saturday, the commission made a determination that people respected and adhered to. I commend in particular the marshals at that parade last weekend. They are to be commended for the role that they play, the responsibility that they take and the training that they undergo, which is an important aspect of modern-day parading.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned the history of 12 July and how this is, in a sense, a time of economic slow-down, but if it were a successful festival, the opposite would be true. The Orange Order is working with Government Departments to turn 12 July into more of a festival for families, visitors and tourists, so that it becomes a positive feature of modern Northern Ireland. I commend all those who are involved in those efforts.

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I also commend the Police Service of Northern Ireland, particularly Assistant Chief Constable, Duncan McCausland, for the work that he and others have done to be much stricter this year on the use of alcohol. The police have worked closely with parade organisers to make it clear that alcohol should not be part of parading. They have also made it clear that they will enforce byelaws and use other powers to take alcohol from people who insist on carrying it on parades. On the Tour of the North parade, 500 cans and bottles of alcohol were confiscated and disposed of. I pay tribute to all those who were involved in that new crackdown on alcohol, as getting rid of alcohol will be a significant step forward in trying to avoid tension and difficulties.

The hon. Members for Upper Bann, for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and for Argyll and Bute have all emphasised the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland in recent years. There has been progress on parading, of which I have given some detail. Again, I give credit to those at the local level who engage and try to find an accommodation and a voluntary way through. For the past two years, we have had no troops on the streets of Belfast on 12 July, and I am extremely confident that the same will be true of next week’s parades in Northern Ireland, because we have moved forward, although there are still issues to resolve.

We are developing the peaceful settlement as well as opportunities for prosperity and for greater democracy, all of which have been substantial achievements of the past year or two, particularly since May of last year, when we had the devolution of the majority of government. That has been warmly welcomed by the people of Northern Ireland and has been taken up enthusiastically by the politicians of Northern Ireland, which should be an encouragement to us all.

David Simpson: The Minister mentions prosperity—this is more a comment than a question. Sometimes, when we talk about the parading season, a picture of doom and gloom is painted, but I read yesterday in one of the respected tabloids that the city of Belfast has come third, regarding its economy, of all the cities in the UK. That is a positive note for the future of the Province.

Paul Goggins: It is a positive note, and I congratulate those in Belfast who have promoted the economy there. Any visitor to Belfast will see the vibrancy of the economy and the growth and physical changes happening there. All of that is equipping Belfast and Northern Ireland to compete in the modern world economy. An affirmation of that was made by those who came from north America to the investment conference in May. They made it clear that they saw Northern Ireland as a place in which to invest. They were thinking of investing not out of some kind of strange charitable sense, but out of a business sense that Northern Ireland presented a real opportunity. They saw that it was a competitive and good place in which to invest their money. The conference was extremely important and was well organised by the devolved Administration because it put Northern Ireland on the world stage in economic terms.

The big challenge that Northern Ireland faces is to change the balance between the public sector and private sector in the economy. Roughly one third of the economy in the Republic is public and two thirds private. In Northern Ireland, we have broadly the opposite. That
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has to change so that the economy becomes sustainable for the long term and extremely prosperous. If the prosperous economy can be matched with the beautiful surroundings—the countryside and coastline of Northern Ireland—it will be a mix that will see Northern Ireland’s prosperity and peace last well into the future.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised some other matters that need to be addressed if we are to sustain progress in Northern Ireland. Clearly, parading is a key issue. He also made it very clear that we have to see an end to all signs of paramilitary activity, and I agree with him. There is no place for a paramilitary presence in Northern Ireland. Those dissidents who seek to take us back to the dark days are isolated, on their own, and have no support. It is very important that all the parties in Northern Ireland continue to pull together to oppose those who would take us back to those days.

We can take great confidence from the successive reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission that make it clear that the Provisional IRA has neither the capacity nor the will to wage war or conflict in Northern Ireland. That is the fundamental block on which so much has been achieved in recent years.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann made the point that the politics of Northern Ireland should not be directed by bilateral talks and negotiations between the Government here and parties in Northern Ireland, and I agree strongly with that. As we seek to make further progress, it is the parties themselves that have to come together and make those agreements, find an accommodation and a way forward. I was encouraged, as I am sure that he was, by the remarks that his party leader, the First Minister, made yesterday at the World Bar conference in Northern Ireland. In a speech, the First Minister spoke publicly about the renewed engagement that he and the Deputy First Minister have begun in order to seek a solution to the unresolved issues. We can all take great heart and comfort from his comments.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to the proposals that we announced last week with regard to the compensation that can be granted when community halls are subject to criminal damage. He will know—now is not the time to detain the Chamber with detail of the complex but effective compensation scheme in Northern Ireland—that, if there is an act of criminal damage on any property in Northern Ireland, and if it is thought that such action was carried out on behalf of, or for the benefit of, a proscribed organisation, the Chief Constable can issue a certificate that gives automatic statutory compensation to the organisation that is responsible for the property. If there is evidence of three or more individuals being involved in that act of criminal damage, again statutory compensation can be paid.

We have decided further to extend that provision to include any community hall that attracts rate relief because of the work that it does in the community or because of its charitable work. If the hall becomes subject to criminal damage, we will extend to it the statutory compensation scheme. Recently, there have been sustained attacks on community halls, particularly Orange halls. We want to make it clear that we stand with those in local communities who want to provide a service or a facility for a service. If there is a continuation of such attacks, there will be the possibility of getting statutory compensation if one of the three categories that I have outlined is fulfilled.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of the sunset clause. We suggested such a clause because we hoped that, with the progress we have made in Northern Ireland, the attacks of the past year or so would recede, diminish and disappear, and that such a provision would no longer be necessary. However, if that power is needed it can be renewed in three years’ time. By then, I hope that it will be not a Minister in this House who takes that considered decision, but a Minister in Northern Ireland.

A number of hon. Members spoke about the strategic review of parading, which is an extremely important piece of work. It is a work in progress in Northern Ireland. Before I pass comment on some of the issues raised, I again want to pay tribute to the work of the Parades Commission, in particular the current chairman and commissioners who, since January 2006, have been assiduous in their work. As I said, we have seen an increase in the number of notified parades and a decrease in the number of contentious parades with restrictions. That is a hopeful sign. The commission will never be in an easy place with regard to contentious parades. It has to make final decisions and decisions in relation to determinations. It will please some people, but not others.

I want to make it clear in the context of the strategic review of parading that the commission will continue to do its job until another system is put in place. It is very important that that point is made. There is no drop-off point for the commission; it will continue to do its job until a new system is put in place.

The work of the strategic review has focused on a number of key principles, which have been mentioned. First, the fundamental principle is that conversation, dialogue and local agreement becomes the normal way of doing things. I must emphasise that local dialogue is important. Secondly—again, because of the progress in Northern Ireland, it is encouraging that we see this as an important characteristic of change—it is critical to reconnect decisions about difficult issues to the local democratic politics. In other words, we should not take such issues outside of politics, but see the democratic process facilitating and supporting decisions. Thirdly, and crucially, we must put in place a set of robust standards for the conduct of public assemblies in Northern Ireland. Those standards will be in a legislative framework and will be backed up by the law.

The fourth principle—the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute made this point very strongly—is that the roles of mediation and adjudication should be separated. They are not separated in the current system, but it is the strong view of the strategic review of parading that they should be. Fifthly, all the principles are organised within a human rights framework because it is critical that we know how to resolve competing rights, such as the right to parade and the right to protest.

The fundamental principles on which the strategic review of parading has built its report are commanding widespread interest and support. We are now in a period of consultation. The strategic review of parading gave its report in April. It is now engaging, listening, taking submissions and responses from a whole range of organisations across Northern Ireland. It will do that until the end of August and then, later in the year, it will produce its final report. It is seeking common ground and consensus so that we can come up with a system that will work not just on paper but in practice.

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The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk asked about the risks of associating the new system too closely with the political process. It is important to emphasise that, under the proposals, the democratic process is responsible for overseeing the administration of this decision-making process. In other words, it is the administration rather than the actual decisions that are facilitated by the democratic political process. That is very important. Local councils would oversee the administration of the form-filling and some of the early stages of the informal discussions that would need to happen, and adjudication would be carried out by a panel appointed by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Again, however, this is not the First Minister and Deputy First Minister making the decision; their office sets up the panels that actually make the decision.

The Government have not yet taken a view about the proposition made by the strategic review of parading—although we have paid tribute to Lord Ashdown and his colleagues for the sterling work that they have done—because we want to see what the final report will say, clearly, before we form any conclusions.

David Simpson: The Minister will know that there was a sense of disappointment at the interim draft report from the strategic review body in relation to the Ormeau road parade and Drumcree; it seems that they have been left out of the process. However, I understand that the Ashdown review team will make recommendations on those two parades in the final report. Will the Minister confirm that?

Paul Goggins: Certainly, that is what the strategic review of parading has said itself: it hopes to have proposals for solutions to what it describes as “legacy parades”, and it names the Ormeau road and Drumcree. Clearly, as I have emphasised, it is important that the issue is not seen as something that is left to the strategic review body to resolve. Instead we all, from the bottom up as well as from the top down, have to work at finding solutions.

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