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I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, because a number of people want to speak in this very short debate. I want to finish by agreeing with the right hon.
Member for Belfast, East and the Minister. Parading should not be used as a political football or to score points off each other. We are talking about a very sensitive issue and about people's lives being affected. The right hon. Gentleman has already mentioned the quote with which I shall finish. As Lord Ashdown said, the vision must be for
"a situation where, over time, parades and assemblies in NI can be regulated in the same way as they would be in any other European democracy".
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): All of us in Northern Ireland with responsibilities as politicians have always had firmly before us the need to harmonise our communities and the diversity of opinions, politically and culturally. I, and my party, have been working towards that objective for decades. It cannot be said tonight that I am trying to, or that I wish to, score party political points at the expense of the main aim of bringing communities to an understanding, in an atmosphere of togetherness and toleration.
Simply because of my age, I probably have greater experience than most in the House of parades and the violence surrounding parades. From way back, I remember when the Royal Ulster Constabulary made certain decisions that were affirmed and confirmed by the then Minister for Home Affairs. That was a recipe for disaster in Northern Ireland, and as it would be still were that to happen again.
We have heard much about the progress being made in Northern Ireland. I welcome that with open arms because I have worked towards it all my life. We should remember that in the negotiations on, and build up to, the contents and implications of the Good Friday agreement, policing was a kernel point and parading a kernel point of that policing. As I remember it-correct me if I am wrong-one of the Patten recommendations was the establishment of an independent, cross-community representative body to make decisions regarding the many contentious parades that were endemic only one decade ago.
Statistics have been quoted tonight by Members on all Benches about how we are dealing with nearly 4,000 parades, only 4 per cent. of which are potentially contentious, and perhaps only a handful of which result in violence. I cannot see the logic in using those statistics to condemn the work of the Parades Commission, because, logically, I would say that they represent the results of the good work of the Parades Commission. Like any other body, it will make mistakes, for or against whoever has a particular bone to pick with it. Generally speaking, however, it was the commission's removal from local, political and even security decision making that enabled communities by and large to have confidence in it.
There are examples in many other areas where matters had to be addressed in a similar fashion-for example, the Fair Employment Commission has had responsibility to deliver fair employment and the Northern Ireland
Housing Executive has responsibility for housing-and all have proved successful and non-contentious. If we are to fix something that I believe ain't broken, I would like to know how that is to be done. Over the past decade, each summer during, let us call it, the marching season, the number of incidents of community disturbances and violence has decreased.
This past summer, with the notable exception of north Belfast and one or two lesser incidents of violence, was the quietest marching season, as we call it, that I can ever remember. If we are to fix this thing that is failing, therefore, I and my community-all communities in fact-will want to know how a betterment will be achieved. It should not simply be done at the behest of one party's political demand or as justification for the devolution of policing and justice.
The community in Northern Ireland believes that the Democratic Unionist party set the abolition of the Parades Commission as a precondition-not as an argument-for the devolution of policing and justice. That smacks of political footwork-and more credit to the party if it can achieve its objective that way-but do not let us pretend that it has something to do with the evil works of the Parades Commission. It does not. It is all to do with political manoeuvring against the party's own internal opposition and external political opposition.
I have not seen the detail of the final report of the Ashdown strategic review of the Parades Commission-indeed, I have heard tonight that it is not yet finished. I find that amazing, in view of the statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 6 October, when he said that the Government fully endorsed the recommendations of the Ashdown report and would pay for the implementation of the changes. Mr. Deputy Speaker, have you ever heard of a commission that has not yet reported being fully endorsed by a Government with promises to pony up the money required to implement the as yet unpublished recommendations? What is happening is absolutely bizarre. The people of Northern Ireland know quite well what is going on: promises undertaken and private deals.
The Minister underscored the point once or twice that there must be cross-party and cross-community support. Where was the consultation or cross-party support before the Government made their decision? There was none whatever; or perhaps it was in another eight or 12-page private letter from Downing street to the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), which no one in Northern Ireland is privy to. Perhaps the Government do not have the political courage to publish it-
That is where we are at. The thrust of this evening's motion is the abolition of the Parades Commission-full stop. It is not about cultural expressions or the God-given right to march. Indeed, I remember asking an eminent human rights barrister about the right to use the Queen's highway to march. He told me something interesting that I never knew, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is this: you do not have the right to march on the Queen's highway; you have the permission to march, which is entirely different. If people's use of that permission is
put in jeopardy by the intent of their actions, that right is withdrawn. There is therefore no automatic right to march.
We had a wonderful presentation from the right hon. Member for Belfast, East in moving the motion about how we are talking about a huge cultural festivity, with tourists flocking from all over the world to it- [ Interruption ]-and there are a few people who know all about that. Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman did talk about the main parade, with 100,000 or however many Orangemen-by the way, I wonder how many signatories to the motion made a declaration of their interest as members of the black, orange or whatever other colour order, but that is all right.
Belfast central parade was never a matter of contention, because there was common ground. My home town, which is 80 to 85 per cent. nationalist, is a small example of that. The local Orange bands parade every 12 July with no bother at all. They can do so any time they want, as long as they are local and as long as people do not come in from afar deliberately to try to create disruption. Do not be fooled, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that people's motives are always altruistic or that they want to express their culture and give delight to tourists. There are sometimes other reasons involved.
Paul Goggins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in paying tribute to him and his party for the role that they have played in the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. It is also worth pointing out that he was a member of the Policing Board for a considerable period when that was not an easy position to hold. However, I would like to put this point gently to him. He said that remarks had been made that amounted to a condemnation of the Parades Commission. However, let me remind him of what I said in my speech, when I went out of my way to praise the Parades Commission and the role that it had played, often in difficult circumstances. None the less, consensus needs to be found. It is clear to me that we cannot lurch from parade to parade, year after year, with no consensus on how parades are managed. Addressing that was the task that we gave Lord Ashdown. If, at the end of the process, as long as it is, we can reach a consensus on the way forward, that will be worth it.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Minister for his brief interruption. What I would say in that context is that, at best, he is damning the Parades Commission with faint praise. We in the SDLP are used to that-we are damned with faint praise by the Government very often, but that is another story altogether. The Minister reiterates the need for cross-party or cross-community consensus, but I wish that he would engage in it a bit more, so that secret deals are not done inside or behind 10 Downing street.
Sammy Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way-I thought that his speech would not be inclusive, but I am glad that it is. Does he accept, first, that he was wrong about the origin of the Parades Commission? It did not come about as a result of Patten. Secondly, he was wrong to link the quietest summer that we have had with the Parades Commission. The reason why we had a quiet summer with parades last year was that Sinn Fein has been tamed in its opposition to parades as a result of my party's work to make it accept the rule of law and the police.
Mr. McGrady: I do not know whether to thank the hon. Gentleman for that interruption, but I have to deal with it. I stand corrected, but when the Patten commission dealt with community policing it endorsed the concept of a parades commission. That is where I am coming from, but if I am wrong about that, it does not make a great material difference to my point.
The Ashdown report, as I understand it from what we have gleaned, makes a number of proposals. I started my comments by talking about the old regime, which was disastrous and in which politics were involved in parade decisions. I hope that I will be contradicted and told that I am wrong about this, but I understand that one aspect of the Ashdown proposals is a political, managerial and administrative role for local councils. Is he serious? The second aspect of the proposals, at a regional level, is for the political involvement of the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. Is that serious? That would bring any old dispute at the crossroads into the local chamber, where it would become a major debate, resulting in a major confrontation in the community. As they say around my way, "I hope yous catch yourselves on," because that is not the way to proceed.
When we see the Ashdown proposals, I hope that the Northern Ireland Office will indicate why it thinks that the Parades Commission should be abolished and what it found was failing, so that a judgment will be made against that, as opposed to against as yet unknown proposals. My fear is that that which, by and large, has proved to work, difficulties and all, will be abolished with nothing meaningful left in its place.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): We have had a remarkably measured debate so far. It has been remarkably lacking in contention and controversy-[Hon. Members: "It has not finished yet!"] There may be more to come, of course. I have no doubt that, once some hon. Members hit their stride, they will make every effort to meet our earlier expectations.
In considering today's debate, I spoke to a number of civic and business groups in Northern Ireland. I listened carefully to what the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said earlier about the reasons for choosing this topic for debate. I was prepared to be quite critical of his choice until I heard the way in which he presented his case. The way in which he explained his reasoning did him and his party considerable credit. When I told those civic and business groups about this debate, however, they all-to a man and a woman-said, "Why on earth are you discussing that? Surely you should be talking about falling manufacturing output, jobs, and the other serious economic issues that Northern Ireland is facing at the moment." I take a great deal of encouragement from that, because it shows that, whereas in the past the entirety of our debates on Northern Ireland would have been on this kind of topic, there is now an enthusiasm in the community there for a broader, more normalised debate-as we would see it from this side of the water.
Mr. Peter Robinson:
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As our last debate was on the economy, I did not want us to present ourselves as a one-trick pony. However, the issue of the economy is vital to the people of Northern Ireland, and that is why it is the one
item that is constantly on the agenda at every Executive meeting that we have. We have a cross-sectoral advisory group, in which the very people that the hon. Gentleman is describing interface directly with the Government so that we can develop a partnership as we move towards recovery.
There is a great deal to be gained from a radical review of parading, with everything on the table. It is surely in everyone's interests to make progress on this issue. Others have already referred to the Ashdown commission and the strategic review of parades that was set up in February 2007. Obviously, given the involvement in that process of my right hon. and noble Friend, Lord Ashdown, we have been supportive of it throughout, and we remain so. The interim report that the commission has produced is a good one, and it is worth reminding ourselves of the long-term vision that the commission outlines in it. It states:
"Our long term goal is to create a situation where, over time, parades and assemblies in Northern Ireland can be regulated in the same way as they would be in any other European democracy."
"Our vision is of a society where parades and protests are no longer the focus or cause of community conflict and in which cultural celebration"-
"takes place in a peaceful and respectful manner in a society characterised by tolerance, human rights, equality and confidence in a future shared by all."
As others have observed, the work of the review has still to be concluded, and we do not therefore have a final report to consider. However, the interim report is a substantial and significant piece of work that is illustrative of the approach that the review team has taken. In our view, the principles laid down in the report are the right ones. The review was right to stress the importance of local dialogue, for example, and the report states that
"the Strategic Review believes that it should be fundamental that conversation, dialogue and local agreement become the normal way of doing things. A simple phone call or conversation can, more often than not, resolve differences and difficulties before they escalate and entail recourse to the mediation or adjudication processes we have devised."
Indeed, in recent marching seasons, representatives of the Orange Order and community groups have shown real leadership in trying to garner local agreement and foster good relations. It is essential that this should be built upon, as local dialogue can lead to local solutions, thereby preventing the increase in tensions and violence that we saw in the late 1990s and at the beginning of this century.
Political traditions and identity, including parading, will continue to be central to cultural and social life in Northern Ireland. However, this must be separated from any threat of intimidation or violence. In democratic societies, disputes should be resolved through peaceful dialogue. As the right hon. Member for Belfast, East said in his speech, freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest are not absolute rights; they have to be balanced against other competing rights in the community.
In the past, disputes over parading and associated protests have been dealt with by the police, by the Government or by independent arbitrating bodies like the Parades Commission. The strategic review believes that the resolution of disputes over parades cannot be successfully achieved without the engagement of representative politics and of political leadership. Devolution provides an opportunity to move towards normality by reconnecting decisions on these difficult issues to local democratic politics. We therefore welcome in principle the role envisaged for local councils in providing support for the development of skills in dispute resolution, both within the council and its staff, and within the wider community. We hope that this will help with the aim of resolving disputes at local level. To that extent, I have to part company with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady).
Feeding into this is the proposal by the strategic review to improve an understanding in Northern Ireland of parades and parading, and of their cultural importance and significance. Indeed, the review team helpfully sought the views of key stakeholders right at the beginning of its deliberations. It identified an immense gulf in understanding of the culture and traditions of each part of the community, which is a prime contributor to the difficulties in reaching local accommodation regarding parades and protest issues. The strategic review stressed, and we agree, that if progress is to be made on parading, it is imperative to address the existing lack of cultural understanding through an effective education programme that includes reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust, and the protection and vindication of human rights for all.
We therefore fully support the recommendations that a cultural understanding education programme should be developed under the auspices of the Office of the First Minister and the Office of the Deputy First Minister, in collaboration with local communities, and that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission should seek to raise awareness of the human rights framework relating to public assemblies and the rights of others. The strong emphasis on a rights-based approach to resolving disputes is very welcome. This can provide a framework for the just resolution of disputes, and the means for ensuring consistent decision making in the regulation of public assemblies. To that end, the review recommends that the outcome of any mediated, negotiated or adjudicated dispute should reflect a proper balance between the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the rights of those who live, work, shop, trade, visit and carry on business in the locality affected by an assembly.
Ultimately, quiet marching seasons and community dialogue are essential if Northern Ireland is to have the shared future that it needs to grow the economy. To this end, the recommendations of the interim report from the strategic review are an important step forward, and we look forward to the review's final recommendations.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), although, unfortunately, I disagree with a number of the points that he made. I will refer to those later. It will also be no surprise to him that I support some of the apprehensions expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady).
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