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"could and should be brought into effect early in 2009".
I suggest that the reason for the delay is that Sinn Fein is seeking once again to use parading as a means to create what Mr. Adams might call a "situation"-this time not around anything so crude as threatening any expression of Britishness, but around an attempt to extract a political price to deliver what has already been agreed. Mr. Adams and his proxy may rue the day that they linked the future of the Ashdown review to the devolution of policing and justice powers, but, in that interim report, that is precisely what they did; and, just as Sinn Fein insisted that changes in parading arrangements could not move forward until policing and justice functions were devolved, I, too, indicate that those functions cannot be devolved until we have moved forward with the necessary changes in parading.
In the Unionist community's experience, the Parades Commission has continued to issue determinations either restricting loyal order parades or preventing them from taking place because of threats of disruption and, in cases, violence itself. However, the Commission does not receive too many Christmas cards from republicans, either. Instead of being part of the solution to the problems that are associated with parades in Northern Ireland, the Parades Commission has become part of the problem. For that reason, my party has been clear that we want to see the Parades Commission abolished and a new system instituted to deal with parades in the Province. I believe that there is widespread support for that position. Indeed, it is also the context in which the Ashdown review has been written.
In recent days, much has been made about the financial package that the Prime Minister has offered in respect of the devolution of policing and justice responsibilities to Northern Ireland. I welcomed his publication of those proposals, and I believe that the Assembly should seriously consider them in its Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Throughout those discussions, however, my colleagues and I have consistently argued that community confidence is a necessary pre-requisite for any such transfer of powers. Indeed, in November 2008, in a published process paper that was agreed by the Deputy First Minister, an entire section-the so-called group 5 issues-was based on the principle that community confidence would be required.
"Secure necessary community confidence for the transfer of policing and justice".
I have a responsibility to gauge when such confidence exists, and my best advice to the House is that, in order to increase public confidence sufficiently to create confidence in the devolution of policing and justice powers, a resolution of the parading issue will be indispensable. In particular, such an outcome will not include the Parades Commission.
Resolution is possible by the establishment of an acceptable rights-based framework. It also means tackling the small number of contested parades that grab the
headlines when protest descends into violence. The last published statistics-for the year to the end of March 2008-show that in Northern Ireland there were 3,849 parades. The Parades Commission labelled 250, or 6.5 per cent., of them as "contentious", which actually means that the application required detailed consideration. Only 147 of the total, or 3.8 per cent., required the imposition of conditions. One fifth of those "contentious" parades related to the Drumcree stand-off alone. The resolution of parading issues in five areas-just five areas-would at a stroke transform the atmosphere in Northern Ireland and increase community confidence, with all the attendant benefits that that would bring.
The motion before the House recognises the tourist potential of parades in Northern Ireland. This year it was my pleasure to attend and speak at the Orangefest launch event in Belfast's Parliament Buildings. Indeed, it was the second time that I have been invited to speak at the event, and I am not a member of the Orange Order, so that says something about the inclusive nature of the order and its attempt to reach out beyond its own ranks. This year the celebrations, known as the Twelfth, took place on 13 July, so the Twelfth was on the 13th this year in Belfast. But that was not the only break from the norm. On the four-mile march to "The Field" in south Belfast, 10,000 Orangemen, from as far afield as Ghana, Togo and Canada, were joined by colourful street entertainment. In total, 100,000 people were in downtown Belfast. Happily, for the first time in recent memory, city centre traders opened for business during the celebrations. The BBC coverage carried a series of interviews with tourists from across the globe.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): We are having a similar debate in Scotland, and one of the models that has been proposed is that we might introduce a parades commission. If Northern Ireland had such a successful 12 July, or 13 July, surely that shows that the Parades Commission is working.
Mr. Robinson: The initiative of Orangefest was not that of the Parades Commission but of the Orange institutions themselves. Indeed, the same has happened with the Apprentice Boys, who have made a festival out of their event, encouraging tourists to come to the city of Londonderry just as the Orangemen, through Orangefest, have encouraged large numbers to come to the city of Belfast.
Where the shopkeepers have gone, in opening their premises during the marching period, it is my earnest hope that the hoteliers and the general tourist industry will follow. This year the Northern Ireland tourist board reported that the Twelfth was "a great success." Festivities in Belfast to mark Orangefest on 12 and 13 July went without a hitch and are likely to be repeated. According to city centre management, the feedback from attendees suggests that those will become regular activities. An initial small survey of members of the public attending the street entertainment reported very high satisfaction levels, with 98 per cent. intending to return next year. According to the Belfast visitor and convention bureau-one of the Orangefest partners-the traditional dip in visitor numbers experienced in July, largely due to fears about personal safety during the marching season, has been reversed in the past five years. In fact, Belfast's hotel market records bed-night occupancies in excess of
80 per cent. in the middle of July-something that one would not have seen anything remotely close to in the decade before.
This motion is not being brought before the House in a contentious manner; I believe that its wording avoids contention. I hope that it will bring centre stage a debate on parading that requires a solution. That solution must involve those who parade and those who protest. It should lead to ensuring that those who wish to march do so in a dignified and peaceful manner, and that those who wish to protest do so in similar fashion. Respect for cultural diversity must be the objective. I look to the day when historical and cultural expression, from wherever it may come in our society, is seen to enrich and colour our lives rather than being a cause of division and contention. I commend the motion to the House.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Let me begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on his opening speech. It was a very thoughtful and considered contribution, and a good start to this evening's debate. He promised at the outset that he would not be contentious, and would instead explore the issues around parading. He was as good as his word, and I think that that will help to stimulate a very constructive debate. He raised a number of interesting and important points. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss those issues with him and his colleagues, and indeed with Members in all parts of the House. The debate has already illustrated, even from its opening speech, the continuing importance of this issue to the people of Northern Ireland.
Our discussion comes at a time when considerable political progress has been made in Northern Ireland. The advances of recent years should not be underestimated, as time and again political leaders have demonstrated that where a problem exists, so too does a solution. Dialogue and political engagement have brought great rewards for Northern Ireland. As many people from all over the world comment, including Secretary of State Clinton on her recent visit, the way in which seemingly intractable problems have been overcome stands as an example to many other areas that are beset with violent conflict.
Notwithstanding the progress that has been made, however, this debate clearly demonstrates that there are still issues to be resolved. In the time that I have held my current responsibilities in Northern Ireland, it has always been clear to me that there are no easy answers to the complex and sensitive issue of parading. Certainly I concur with the right hon. Gentleman that coming to address the issue each year in June or July is far too late: discussion and dialogue has to begin much sooner that that. It is also clear to me that it is in local dialogue, in trying to resolve disputes, and in working tirelessly together across communities, that solutions can be found and a way forward can be identified.
Difficulties associated with parading can only, and will only, be resolved when there is engagement at political and local level, when there is understanding of and respect for different opinions, and when we move away from thinking in terms of winners and losers-as the right hon. Gentleman himself suggested. There has to be an atmosphere of tolerance whereby everyone
accepts the right to parade as well as the right to peaceful and lawful protest. Again I pay tribute to those-including many of those in this House today-who give unstintingly of their time and energy to ensure that the majority of parades and protests pass without incident. In particular, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his efforts-he described them in his speech-in seeking to begin a process aimed at finding a resolution to the issue of Drumcree. As I know from our many meetings and discussions, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), too, has over many years sought to resolve this issue.
In any discussion on parading, it is important to keep the issue in perspective. The vast majority of parades in Northern Ireland pass without incident; only a small fraction of the 3,000 parades each year are considered to be controversial. But I recognise, too, that parading has the capacity to cause division. I also acknowledge that there are those who would, for their own cynical purposes, seek to exploit difficult situations in an effort to drag people back to the past.
Problems of public order can quickly escalate. Notwithstanding the signs of progress in Belfast this year-on 13 July, as the right hon. Gentleman said, rather than 12 July-with further signs of progress in the economy and in tourism, the situation faced at Ardoyne on 13 July, when dissident republicans, against the wishes of local people, attacked the police and sought to disrupt the parade, provides a very recent example of how things can go wrong and serves as a reminder that not everyone in Northern Ireland wants to see the parading issue resolved. Those who would bring firearms into an area, and leave them where children can find them, as they did at Ardoyne that evening, treat such communities with total disdain.
More generally, those who deliberately stir up public order tensions have as their objective the destruction of community relations and the creation of division, apprehension and insecurity. They want to damage Northern Ireland's reputation, to drive away potential investment, and to undermine the efforts of those seeking to encourage others to come to Northern Ireland as a tourist destination.
It is vital, therefore, that we all work together to ensure that the dissidents are unsuccessful in what they seek to do. That means providing leadership at the political level and fostering an environment of understanding, co-operation, tolerance and mutual respect at the community level. It is not, as such people would have us believe, a case of "you win and I lose". If the dissidents have their way and instil their sense of bitterness and hatred across the community, then, of course, everyone is a loser. That is why it is vital that politics is seen to work and that communities recognise the need to find a way of respecting the traditions of those who wish to parade, while acknowledging the rights of those who wish to protest.
In acknowledging that 2009 has in some areas been a difficult parading season, I want to recognise the work of the Parades Commission. It has made a major contribution to the delivery of successful and peaceful parading in Northern Ireland in recent years, and I pay tribute to it for all that it has done. Its job is extremely challenging and sometimes makes it unpopular; it takes courage to take difficult decisions. It is worth remembering that in recent months, threats have been issued against
the members of the commission by dissident republicans opposed to the decisions that they have taken. The House will want to join me in condemning those who seek to threaten and intimidate in such a way. They have nothing to offer, and will not be allowed to succeed.
In paying tribute to the commission for its work, I also acknowledge that we recognised at St. Andrews that a new approach was required to deal with parading. The Government therefore established the strategic review of parading under the chairmanship of Lord Ashdown to see whether a sustainable solution could be found. I said when I announced the review that it was not going to be a quick fix, and I wanted the review group to have the time to consider the matter carefully and hear and reflect on all shades of opinion. The Government welcomed the publication of the interim report, which, as the right hon. Gentleman indicated, was supported by all members of the review group and presented detailed and carefully considered proposals. It was clear from the document that the group had listened carefully to the representations received.
I pay tribute to the review group for its work. It comprises representatives from different traditions-those who wish to parade and those representing communities with concerns about parading. They have sat down together, used their experience, discussed their differences and mapped out a process based on dialogue and the development of a shared understanding of their different views and positions. That is the required approach if a long-term resolution to the parading issue is to be found. Lord Ashdown has indicated that the group is finalising its work, and the Government look forward to receiving its report.
The Secretary of State and I have always made it clear that the Government stand ready to introduce changes to how parades in Northern Ireland are managed when there is community agreement so to do. That is intended not to take away from the work of the Parades Commission, but rather to recognise that there are other mechanisms by which a resolution to this long-standing problem may be found.
The solution brought forward 11 years ago is not necessarily the one for today, or indeed for the future. Politically, we are in a different place now from where we were when the commission was established. It is not surprising, therefore, that the review group will want to consider whether a different process is required and where responsibility for that process should be located. However, it is important to recognise, as the strategic review interim report does, that until changes are implemented and ready to operate, the Parades Commission will remain the final arbiter in parading matters.
The abiding and consistent lesson from the Northern Ireland peace and political processes is that where there is a problem, the political parties and the different communities can work together productively to secure a solution. The solution to the parades that are the source of community dissension and division, as Lord Ashdown has indicated, and the Secretary of State and I have repeatedly stated, will come through local dialogue and the development of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect.
I recognise that concerns are deep-rooted and will not be resolved overnight, but if we do not find a solution, the potential for wider political, economic and social damage should not be underestimated. All of us
must collectively continue to work towards a solution, and I encourage all the parties in Northern Ireland to focus on the contentious parades that, as we have seen again in 2009, have the potential to undermine the achievements of recent years. Together we must put in place a process that will ensure that divisions are healed and respect for different traditions is encouraged.
We need to ensure that parading is about not winning and losing, but creating the space for communities to come together, work together in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and find a way forward that will acknowledge the rights of all sides. I encourage all those engaged in this matter not to close their minds but to continue to see the opportunities. The Government remain committed to working with the parties to secure the necessary agreement, and to doing whatever we can to move this issue forward.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) on introducing the debate. I agree with the Minister that he spoke in a reasonable and measured way, which is appropriate given the sensitivities in Northern Ireland in general, and particularly on this subject.
I agreed with much of what the Minister said, and I thank him for being available to discuss these issues and for having an open-door policy when it comes to matters involving Northern Ireland, whether it be in the Chamber or when we discuss statutory instruments, as we often do. I believe that we will be back together next week to discuss one or two more, and I look forward to that.
The right hon. Member for Belfast, East, was absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that everyone has the right to assemble, to march and to protest peacefully. The Minister reinforced that point. Freedom of speech and expression is a time-honoured tradition, and we should never dispense with it or endanger it. Additionally, we have to understand that in Northern Ireland, expression through marches has cultural and historic importance-an important matter, to which the motion draws attention.
As the right hon. Gentleman said-the figures are worth repeating-in 2007-08 the Parades Commission received notification of 3,849 parades, of which only 250 were contentious. Of those, only 147 had conditions applied to them. As he said, less than 4 per cent. of the parades were of real concern. That said, 147 parades being seen as contentious or difficult and having to have conditions attached to them is a large number, even if a small percentage.
It is important for sensitivity to accompany both the debate and any march or protest, and to be demonstrated on both sides. As everybody knows, Northern Ireland has two very different cultures with different views, but we have to move forward together and recognise that we are trying to build a shared future. Sensitivity and respect on both sides is therefore important. We have made the most enormous progress in Northern Ireland, and we should pay tribute to all the political parties that have taken part in the democratic debates, and to the people of Northern Ireland. The fact that the people had had enough of the troubles was one of the most telling factors that enabled the Province to move forward.
We still feel, however, that there is a need for a body to take decisions on parades, even if that body is not the Parades Commission as such. We are aware that the
commission may not command respect throughout Northern Ireland, but the Minister was right to draw attention to the fact that it has done a great deal of good work. Importantly, it took the responsibility for deciding on parades away from the police, leaving them to look after the parades without having to make the rules about them. However, it does not enjoy complete support. It has some, but we want to engage with the people of Northern Ireland in deciding what should replace it and how we should move on.
I spoke to the Minister earlier, and as I understand it-he may wish to confirm this-it is for this House in Westminster to decide what will replace the Parades Commission. If we are so minded, it is also for this House to devolve decision making on parades to Northern Ireland. As I understand it, that does not happen automatically with the devolution of policing and justice. I would be grateful if at some point in the debate the Minister could confirm that I am right.
Paul Goggins: I am happy to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, as he invites me to do. As I said, we are looking for a consensus. We want to work with the grain of consensus in Northern Ireland, which is why it is right that Lord Ashdown and his review group are taking time to see if that consensus can be found. However, it is true that if there is a consensus, and therefore a need for a change that would move the system for regulating and managing parades away from the Parades Commission to another process or system, primary legislation would be required, and that would be taken through the House. Subsequently, that issue might be devolved to Northern Ireland. That is the expectation and the basis on which we are working at the moment.
Even if we are taking those decisions here, which the Minister has confirmed, it is extremely important that we talk to the political parties in Northern Ireland and other people there who are involved. I recently had a meeting with the Orange Order, whose members expressed their concerns to me about the process. I listened to what they said, and I am happy to meet anyone in Northern Ireland to discuss those issues. Those people must have a large input into the process.
We believe that the interim Ashdown report provides the ideas on which we can build. It would be unwise to take too many decisions until we have the final report, which we look forward to. Afterwards, however, we intend to consult widely with people in Northern Ireland to see what they think is the way forward.
At this stage of the interim report, however, we have a concern. With great respect to the First Minister, who introduced this debate, we are not convinced that it would be right for him and the Deputy First Minister to decide on parades, given how things are set up at the moment. There is, in effect, a four-party coalition in the Assembly, and we perhaps believe that those decisions should be taken more neutrally.
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