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Parading Review

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

2. What recent steps his Department has taken regarding the strategic review of parading carried out by Lord Ashdown; and if he will make a statement. (248300)

I met Lord Ashdown last week and he updated me on the ongoing work of the review. I welcome the progress made, and look forward to receiving the final report when the review group has concluded its work.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He knows that I sent him some proposals about the ongoing Garvaghy road parade in Portadown. Will he agree to meet me and a small delegation to discuss them further?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen for a resolution on the Drumcree parade, and I pay tribute to him for his efforts in discussions with me and others, including members of the Portadown District Orange Lodge, who have also made considerable efforts. Of course, I am happy to meet him and consider his views. In the end, determination of parades is a matter for the Parades Commission and, again, I take the opportunity to join him in encouraging all individuals and organisations to get into dialogue about the issue as soon as possible.

Does the Minister agree that the Parades Commission has done an extremely good job in difficult circumstances and that any tinkering with its work may well have a downside rather than an upside?

I readily join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Parades Commission, and especially to its chairman, Roger Poole, for its unstinting efforts to ensure that we have peaceful parading in Northern Ireland. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the Whiterock parade, which went so dreadfully wrong, happened only a little over three years ago. Everybody has worked hard in those three years to ensure peaceful parading in Northern Ireland, but we have made it clear that, if there is a consensus about an alternative system for regulating parading and having oversight of it, we are prepared to consider it. Lord Ashdown has been given that task, and I hope to receive his report in due course.

One of the proposals in the interim report by Lord Ashdown is to transfer responsibility for decisions on parading to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. If that happens, would they have to be in agreement when deciding on parades and the details of parades, as they have to be on many other issues? Given the time-limited nature of the process for making decisions on parades, seeing as there are so many of them, what would happen if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not reach such agreement?

It is important to understand what was actually in the interim report from the parading review group. It proposed that the administration of applications for parades should be overseen by local councils and that the system for the resolution of disputes should be overseen by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That does not mean political interference or adjudication; rather, it is a question of administration. We know that the review group has consulted on that proposition. We await its final report to see whether its views have changed or whether its recommendations have been refined. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in urging everybody in Northern Ireland to try to reach a consensus, so that we can make further progress.

My hon. Friend has been very careful in what he has said about the Parades Commission and in how he has structured his answers, but some people say that the Parades Commission should be abolished, so perhaps he could tell me this: what is the Government’s position on the Parades Commission?

I normally try to take some care with the words that I use, particularly in the Chamber. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) earlier, the Government fully support the Parades Commission and believe that it has done an extremely good job in difficult circumstances. However, we know that there are people and organisations in Northern Ireland that do not share that view. If it is possible for all the parties and all sections of the community to arrive at a consensus on an alternative system, we will obviously be prepared to consider it, because in the longer term we need a sustainable approach to parading. We cannot lurch from parade to parade and season to season, unsure about the future. We have to have a sustainable approach to parading, so that peaceful parading can be guaranteed.