I beg to move,
That this House recognises that the right of free assembly and peaceful procession is an intrinsic human right and an important part of the British heritage; acknowledges the cultural significance of parading in Northern Ireland and its tourist potential; regrets the attempts by a minority to interfere with the right to parade peacefully; and accepts that it is a political imperative to resolve such matters, especially in a context where it is proposed to devolve policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland.
I should perhaps begin by providing some explanation for the choice of this subject matter and by outlining something of our purpose and intention. Members who study these things will be aware that our last Opposition day debate was on the economy. We are currently considering the issue of policing and justice, which is a major subject in Northern Ireland, and parading is closely aligned with that subject and therefore has a critical common theme, which I shall come to in the course of my remarks.
The wording of the motion was considered in the context of ensuring that this would not become a debate of contention. I and my colleagues desire that the matters relating to parades in Northern Ireland should be resolved. That is particularly important in the context of the devolution of policing and justice. I strongly contend that although they have been divisive issues in the past, they should not be treated in a manner whereby it is a victory for one side or another to seek and gain a resolution. A resolution should be considered to be a success for all.
I said that I believed it to be imperative that we resolve these issues in the context of the potential devolution of policing and justice. To leave them unresolved and to devolve powers in policing and justice would plant a seed at the heart of government in Northern Ireland that would, I believe, be corrosive and derisive and could ultimately be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I urge people seriously to consider these matters and to put them at the centre of debate, particularly in Northern Ireland, and I urge politicians to seek a resolution to the problems.
All too often, we get around to June or July and politicians and other well-meaning people decide that that is a good time for us to start to consider how we can resolve the issue of contentious parades. It is already too late by then—the parades start moving forward, it becomes more difficult to get a resolution and we all wait to the following year before we suddenly wake up to the issue again in June or July.
For that reason, as First Minister I invited the Orange Order in Portadown and the Garvaghy road residents to come to see me so that we would have a full year to start working through how we might resolve the issue. I believe that we made some progress. I found that both parties were willing to sit down and to talk about how they might resolve the issues, and both were looking towards the Parades Commission or some other independent arbitrator to bring together the parties and to consider a resolution on that parade, which is one of the longest running disputed parades with which we have to deal. Now is the time to do this—we should not wait until we are into the marching system, as it is called in Northern Ireland, before we start struggling with these matters.
It is my goal and that of my colleagues, I hope, that over time parades in Northern Ireland will be dealt with as they would be in any other part of the United Kingdom—indeed, as they would be in any other European democracy. As a Unionist I have no difficulty in stating categorically that a human rights framework is crucial to get us to that point in Northern Ireland. I recognise that that framework will be defined principally by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, although there will be some who will not be happy about that. I also recognise that in certain situations there might be a number of competing rights. In any lawful society the balance between such competing rights will ultimately be determined by the courts, not by the group that has the ability to cause the maximum disruption around contentious parades.
Those who are concerned that the legal framework in Northern Ireland surrounding behaviour at parades might not be sufficiently adequate to deal with these circumstances should not lose any sleep worrying that additional legislation is required. The contents of the statute book are more than sufficient. A cursory glance through the relevant criminal legislation reveals no fewer than seven pieces of legislation that could be applied to anyone misbehaving at parades—either those participating or those protesting. They are: the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987; the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997; the Terrorism Act 2000; the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; the Criminal Justice (No.2) (Northern Ireland) Order 2004; and, of course, the Human Rights Act 1998, which places all public authorities under an obligation to act in a manner compatible with the European convention on human rights and to take into account decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.
Freedom of expression as guaranteed by article 10 of the convention has been described by the Court as
“one of the essential foundations of a democratic society”.
Who am I to disagree with that assessment? That right, of course, is not absolute, but again the Court provides assistance when restrictions on freedom of expression are mooted. Any restriction “must be convincingly established” and subject to very close scrutiny, given the recognition that freedom of expression is often a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of many other rights, including the right to freedom of peaceful assembly as articulated in article 11. That right is one that
“should not be interpreted restrictively”.
Again, the Court is of assistance.
Let me say to Unionists, who have for far too long been reluctant to embrace the protections that human rights legislation provides, that there should be no hesitation in praying the convention in aid on parading matters. Two cases stand out in that regard. In 1980, the European Commission of Human Rights held in Christians Against Racism and Fascism v. UK that
“the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is secured to everyone who has the intention of organising a peaceful demonstration”.
It went on to state that
“the possibility of violent counter demonstrations, or the possibility of extremists with violent intentions, not members of the organising association, joining the demonstration cannot as such take away that right. Even if there is a real risk of a public procession resulting in disorder by developments outside the control of those organising it, such a procession does not for this reason alone fall outside the scope of Article 11”.
Eight years later, the European Court of Human Rights gave judgment in Plattform “Arzte für das Leben” v. Austria. Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for quoting from that judgment, but given the history of intolerance shown towards loyal order demonstrations, it is perhaps helpful to show where the balance of rights lie in a lawful society. It stated:
“A demonstration may annoy or give offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims that it is seeking to promote. The participants must, however, be able to hold the demonstration without having to fear that they will be subjected to physical violence by their opponents; such a fear would be liable to deter associations or other groups supporting common ideas or interests from openly expressing their opinions on highly controversial issues affecting the community. In a democracy the right to counter-demonstrate cannot extend to inhibiting the exercise of the right to demonstrate.”
It goes on:
“Genuine, effective freedom of peaceful assembly cannot, therefore, be reduced to a mere duty on the part of the State not to interfere: a purely negative conception would not be compatible with the object and purpose of Article 11.”
Let us compare the rights that the Court articulated with the strategy that republicans organised and orchestrated in opposing lawful parades. Gerry Adams’s now infamous briefing, fortuitously caught on tape by RTÉ, is chillingly cynical. Let me remind hon. Members of the unguarded but authentic words of Mr. Adams. He said:
“Ask any activist in the north, ‘did Drumcree happen by accident?’, and they will tell you, ‘no’. Three years of work on the Lower Ormeau Road, Portadown, and parts of Fermanagh and Newry, Armagh and in Bellaghy and up in Derry. Three years of work went into creating that situation and fair play to those people who put the work in. They are the type of scene changes that we have to focus on and develop and exploit.”
The situation to which Mr. Adams refers was one in which those seeking to exercise their convention rights were prevented from doing so by violence and by the threat of violence. As I said, the demand for parading to be seen in a rights-based framework is one that every citizen of the United Kingdom—indeed, of any democracy worth the name—can comfortably support.
Let me dare to make the point that no matter what role Sinn Fein had in the creation of parading disputes, it is now in the interests as much of Sinn Fein as of Unionists to find a resolution. A way forward can gain the support of both sections of our community, and it is both achievable and desirable.
My colleagues and I strongly support the work of Lord Ashdown, who has been working on the strategic review of parading in Northern Ireland. My party welcomed the initiation of the review, because it provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at the issue and to put right the failures of the past. The review body published an interim consultative report in April 2008, and the foreword to that report was signed by all the members of the review group—all the members, including the well-known Belfast republican Sean “Spike” Murray. Given the consensus reached in April 2008 by the group, which also had a leading member of the Orange Order on it, one has to ask why the final report has not reached the Secretary of State. I make it very clear that it is no fault of Lord Ashdown that it has not done so; after all, the timeline envisaged in the foreword was,
“to deliver the final report to the Secretary of State in the autumn of 2008”;
and the group believed that its proposals
“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.
That group of issues identified four steps, concluding with the requirement:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response.
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.
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”.
We want those decisions taken locally, but we also want to continue the process of moving Northern Ireland towards the normal politics that we enjoy in the rest of the United Kingdom.
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.
I have only just started my speech.
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—
Just give me a moment. [Interruption.] I will come back to the hon. Member.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that I have made my point in that regard; it does not need labouring further.
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.”
That is a significant ambition. It goes on:
“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”—
of the sort described by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East described—
“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.
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).
The motion states that
“this House recognises that the right of free assembly and peaceful procession is an intrinsic human right”,
yet it has been tabled by a party that has difficulty acknowledging intrinsic human rights in other areas. That is why the Democratic Unionist party is opposed to anything like a meaningful, robust Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, saying that we do not need one, and why it rejects a rights-based approach to a number of other policy areas—[Interruption.] We can point to all sorts of rhetoric to show that that is what it does.
The motion also
“regrets the attempts by a minority to interfere with the right to parade peacefully”.
I certainly do not want to see anyone’s right to parade peacefully interfered with. There are, however, contentions around the question of what that right is, particularly in circumstances in which people feel that a parade that has been introduced or imposed in their area is provocative to the interests, identity and sentiments of the people in that area. That can give rise to the question of whether it is a peaceful parade, and whether it involves the normal right of assembly.
We need to recognise that there are few rights that apply regardless. We know that in the context of Northern Ireland people’s exercise of the right of assembly has given rise to various public order issues, either directly or indirectly—either as a consequence of the people brought out to parade or to demonstrate in a given situation or as a consequence of those who come out against them and the wider atmosphere created. We know that in Northern Ireland there is a duty on us all to have regard to community relations and the interests of public order, so we need to remember that there are various requirements, in respect of responsibilities for good and proper public conduct, and in respect of the rights that may be asserted on behalf of particular interests to march or demonstrate.
I recall that there was some dispute about the provenance of the concept of a Parades Commission. Let me first reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for South Down said: the Patten report worked very much on the basis of the Parades Commission already being in place, and fundamentally asserted that the issue should never revert to police officers having to make judgments and decisions on whether to permit parades on the basis of the risk to public order—in essence, on the basis of who represented the biggest threat.
That is what we had for a number of years in the ’90s. The police were caught in a vice between the loyal orders insisting on a right to parade in contentious areas and groups calling themselves “residents groups”. We heard earlier about what the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) believes to have been the orchestrated and syndicated nature of some of those residents groups in opposing marches. We saw for a number of years the police caught having to take those decisions; basically, they called a parading decision on the basis of who offered the biggest threat to public order.
That created serious situations, but not just for the individual parades, as it also meant that for a number of summers the political process was transfixed. The talks had to stop in 1996 because of the contentions in and around Drumcree. George Mitchell had to stop the talks in Castle Buildings for two weeks while these matters were dealt with and played themselves out. Policing found itself compromised—decisions were made on the basis not of fairness but of where the biggest threat lay—and politics found itself transfixed.
In 1997 talks took place, and again we had Drumcree in early July. There was a new Government, and Mo Mowlam was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Because of Drumcree in 1997, Mo Mowlam, in tears and after only two months in office, offered her resignation to the Social and Democratic Labour party leadership—to John Hume, Seamus Mallon and to Brid Rodgers. I was present at the meeting, too.
Surely the hon. Gentleman’s speech is proving that the issue of parading has to be dealt with. I find it somewhat ironic and strange that he is telling the House that the Secretary of State offered her resignation to the SDLP instead of to the Prime Minister.
To clarify the position for the hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State made it clear at the time that if, because of our anger and concern at how she had handled the Drumcree issue—accepting the recommendation and bowing to the demand of the Chief Constable that a parade be taken down Garvaghy road under the cover of darkness in the early hours of the morning, against all the assurances and promises that she had given—and if the SDLP leadership of John Hume and Seamus Mallon were saying that they could not trust her, she would resign.
However, that was not the only part of the conversation. Mo Mowlam also made it clear that she wanted to make sure that a Secretary of State would never again be put in such a position and that a Chief Constable would never again find himself forced to take a decision on parades because of who represented the biggest threat and what was the best way to end the situation—even though there would be huge fallout in community relations and politically. She felt that she had no choice and that no Secretary of State would have had any choice but to bow to the demand and recommendation from the Chief Constable in that instance—given the terms in which the Chief Constable voiced his recommendation—and that that was no way to decide things. She shared with us the determination to ensure that the issue of parades would be insulated from the vexed issue of policing and from politics.
That is the success of the Parades Commission. Has it got every decision right? No. Has it got every process right, and have its various agents working in different situations always got everything right? No, they have not; but they have broadly succeeded in making sure that politics and policing have been earthed from the convulsions that surround parades.
I think that the Parades Commission at various times during its broad life has been reflective. There were controversial appointments, including those that nationalists did not like, particularly when attempts were made to put people from the loyal orders into positions. People asked then, “Is that credible? Is that balanced?”, but the fact is that, in the round, whatever exceptions people took to its particular decisions or whatever issues people had about particular appointments, the Parades Commission has broadly succeeded in its initial task of defusing the parades situation, which had been becoming ever more serious, partly for the reasons on which the right hon. Member for Belfast, East touched.
Yes, the parades issue was used by Sinn Fein to contrive difficulties and tensions that would lead to wider political stand-offs. It is very easy to stroke prejudice in one community and to stoke prejudice in another, creating a crisis. That is partly what was happening. However, Sinn Fein were not alone in winding people up at that time. Other political leaders were doing the same and were playing into Sinn Fein’s hands. One of the successes of the Parades Commission has been to defuse all that potential.
It should be remembered that Sinn Fein did not welcome the Parades Commission. They spent a long time not recognising it, attacking its decisions and attacking its processes. The impression is given that only Unionists have ever had difficulty with the Parades Commission and that it was always going to be a home run for nationalists—it never was. The creation of the Parades Commission meant that politics, in coming to the Good Friday agreement and bearing down on it, was not caught transfixed and hamstrung by having to handle the parades issue. It also meant that the operational capacity of policing was freed from having to make the most awkward calls in relation to parades. The police were having to step in when there was a failure of politics or when an absolute contrivance of confrontation was created. The Parades Commission helped to ensure that the new beginning to policing, as recommended by Patten, was able to bed down. Without the Parades Commission taking decisions on parades, God knows how the new Police Service of Northern Ireland would have worked and how the Policing Board would have coped.
The Parades Commission made its judgment on the basis of quite a number of issues. Its judgments did not focus only on the right of assembly; it took other things into account. Yes, public order issues were relevant, but it also considered who was making a good effort in terms of engagement and dialogue and who was genuinely open to the concerns of others. [Interruption.] I know that some people dislike those other considerations. [Interruption.] I know that they would prefer the sole right to parade to be the only yardstick by which permission is given.
I will give way shortly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It should be remembered, however, that over the years the Parades Commission has produced criteria and considerations that are becoming ever more transparent. Over time, they have developed in ways that have enabled the commission to respond to some of the concerns and criticisms that have been expressed. What we do not know is what will happen if the commission is to go—and DUP Members have made clear that that is their aim: whenever my hon. Friend the Member for South Down suggested that it was the real purpose of the motion, they all said “Hear, hear”.
We must ask ourselves whether the objectives and criteria that the Parades Commission have built up will hold any sway in the future. Those who say that the interim recommendations from Lord Ashdown are good, and who just cannot wait for the final report, should ask what Lord Ashdown has said about what weight will be given such considerations in the context of the processes that his review recommends.
I was tempted to say that the hon. Gentleman had driven by the point that I had intended to make, but as we have had no drive-by vetoes in his remarks so far, I will forgive him for that. Does he accept, however, that those who do not believe that the Parades Commission offers the best solution are often frustrated by the fact that in many instances in which they have made every effort to engage with residents—for example, those in the Portadown district have engaged with everyone and anyone who will talk to them—the commission has given no recognition to their efforts, and that that is part of the frustration felt by those who want to parade and are denied the right to do so?
The answer lies in what the right hon. Member for Belfast, East said earlier. He produced statistics showing that the overall number of contentious parades had been greatly reduced. He ended up not just talking about the percentage, but saying that if we get away from the Parades Commission and go with the Ashdown proposals, we would resolve the problem of five parades.
On what basis can we assume that simply implementing the Ashdown proposals will resolve the issue of parades in five areas? How are we to believe that moving away from the Parades Commission will not dangerously reopen issues of parades in other areas that have been broadly resolved thanks to the exhaustive work of the Parades Commission and those who have engaged with it? The idea that we can take everything for granted, and that as long as we adopt the Ashdown proposals those remaining five problems will be solved, is naive in the extreme.
I must take issue with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). The idea that the task of handling the vexed issue of parades should be remitted to councils, particularly the new councils that will be created as a result of the review of public administration—they are unknown entities at this stage, and there is as yet no agreement on the governance protections in relation to new councils—is also extremely naive.
There is a danger that those councils will find themselves embroiled in controversies that they did not create or cultivate—when someone else decides to create a parades dispute. The right hon. Member for Belfast, East produced a quotation from Gerry Adams which made clear that Sinn Fein had deliberately contrived such controversies and cultivated them over time, and the fact is that there are other people out there with the same agenda. Dissidents revealed this year how they were prepared to behave in the Ardoyne. They showed it in a different and perhaps slightly more subtle way in Derry, where they organised, in the guise of an anti-internment demonstration, a counter-demonstration to the Apprentice Boys on the same day in an attempt to create tension and difficulty.
We know that there are people out there whose agenda is to use the parades issue to breathe life into themselves by creating confrontation and tension that will inevitably persuade people to join one side of the stand-off or another. Will those people not be given an incentive to say, “If we can create a difficulty, it will become a problem for the new local council”? It will be a technocratic matter, but those people’s propaganda will insist that it is a problem for the political body corporate.
Council officers will not thank anyone—including the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—for putting them in a position in which they must say “Sorry, Ashdown has come up with this idea, and some officials are agents of the council so they must take the heat whenever contention arises, because we wash our hands of it.” It would be awful if politicians contrived that situation, only to step aside and allow other public officials to take the blame. Council officers might be put in the position in which the police have found themselves in the past.
I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) are getting the idea that somehow district councils will find themselves having to resolve disputes. That is not the role that Ashdown has given them. The hon. Gentleman would do well either to read the interim report or to wait until the final report has been published before jumping to conclusions. It is clear that councils have been given an administrative role involving dealing with non-contentious parades. If a parade is deemed to be contentious by any person objecting to it, it will move to a different stage.
I am afraid that I disagree with that interpretation. What we are creating is a licence and an incentive for people to make things contentious. An issue that will be non-contentious in one year will become contentious in another, and that will put officers in an invidious position. It will be assumed that what was agreed last year with X personnel in such and such a group stands for this year as well. When that new contention is created, the political problem will arise of why that has happened. There are enough examples of its happening in other areas involving council officers, and it has involved civil servants in central Government Departments as well.
I recall civil servants engaging in entirely good faith with different community groups involved in contentious issues during my time in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in relation to north Belfast and Holy Cross, and I know exactly the sort of difficulties that are created as people reinterpret what they said. They say, “We did not say that it was non-contentious. We had particular concerns and set down conditions that have been forgotten, and we ended up with officials giving very different accounts of the meetings that they had from those given by the people with whom they engaged.” There is a danger of that happening at council level.
There is also the proposal that the OFMDFM should have a role in appointing panels if the issue is contentious. Again, we are being told that that will not be done by a political wing of the OFMDFM, but by the bureaucratic administrative technocratic wing. The fact is, however, that people will decide that they can have a premium crisis if they create contention in relation to a parade that then involves the appointment of a panel by OFMDFM. As far as they are concerned, they potentially have the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister where they want them: caught in relation to a controversial and contentious parades issue. There is the danger in that of paralysing that office and compromising people within the office, and there is also the danger of going back to the days when the political process was transfixed and caught, as different parties had to rally to either side of a local parade stand-off.
We need to see the dangers in this. An exaggerated case has been made against the Parades Commission when all the evidence of the improved environment of parades shows that it has broadly been working. I agree that it can be improved. All sorts of adjustments can be made and we need to make them, and we must also learn all sorts of lessons and move forward, but the idea that we can simply dispose of the Parades Commission for an untried, untested alternative, which other people with very destructive and malign agendas will test, is a dangerous idea.
The undertone to this debate is that moving in the suggested direction is somehow a precondition or requirement for the devolution of justice and policing. The right hon. Member for Belfast, East earlier seemed to be warning Sinn Fein about creating linkages around the issue of parades and the devolution of justice and policing. The warning equally applies to the Democratic Unionist party. We cross the wires of politics and parades at our peril. The construct of the Parades Commission was all about making sure that we separated the highly charged wires of policing, parades and politics. It is important, in everybody’s interests, that we keep them separate.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. The hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady) referred to the need to retain the Parades Commission and talked about its success. I beg to differ with that assessment. I do not count it a success that in Northern Ireland today we still need commissions to make decisions for us on the basis that we lack the maturity to make them ourselves. I do not count it a success that the Social Democratic and Labour party’s vision of the future is that local politicians cannot sit down together and work out local problems in local areas, but that they have to rely on commissions. The days of SDLP crutches propping up the difficulties in our community should be put behind us. If we can sit in government in Stormont dealing with the big issues of the day, why can we not deal with these issues? Is that not the political maturity we want in Northern Ireland?
Is it not time that we kicked aside the crutches of the commissions that have been propping up our community for years, and instead started to deal with the contentious issues that confront us? After all, the SDLP will tell us time and again that the template for success in Northern Ireland is the Belfast agreement, and the Belfast agreement talks about tolerance and respect. I understood that tolerance was about tolerating things we do not necessarily like, because tolerance is not about tolerating things we like. The kind of society we want in Northern Ireland is one not where the Orangemen are restricted to walking in Downpatrick on the one day of the year when they are permitted to walk there, but where they can, perhaps, hold a parade on another day when they will be welcomed and can express their culture in a society that demonstrates tolerance, and where it is not a question of whether they live in the town or come from a few miles outside it. If people want to express their culture, they have the right to do so and those who do not necessarily accept that culture tolerate that right. That is the mark of a mature society.
I fear that the kind of society the SDLP talks about is a society where there is continued division and continued segregation and that it is about, “Our territory and your territory, and you stay in your territory and we’ll stay in ours, and ne’er the twain shall meet.” That kind of segregation is not the mark of the Northern Ireland we want for the future—the SDLP as the segregated, democratic and labour party? That is certainly not what we want. We in the DUP want to see a united Northern Ireland. That is our vision: to remove the divisions within our country.
No, I will not give way. The hon. Member had 20 minutes to speak. We on this side will have less time, and I want to take the full opportunity to say what I have to say.
Segregation is not the way forward in Northern Ireland. Dividing up our society is not the way forward. Territorialism is not the way forward. A shared future is what we want; that is what the DUP wants. That is what we are working towards achieving in Stormont. That is what we are working to achieve throughout Northern Ireland—and, yes, it would be nice if that were recognised from time to time. Irish nationalism talks, in the constitution of the 26 counties of the Republic, about cherishing all the people of the nation equally. Why do I feel at times rather uncherished by Irish nationalism?
I should have declared an interest at the beginning of my remarks: I am a member of the Orange Institution and the Royal Black Institution, which are marching orders in Northern Ireland. I am proud to be a member of those institutions, and I believe that it is fundamental to a society that tolerates, that respects and that upholds human rights that people have the right to pursue their culture, uphold their identity and pursue the public expression of their religious beliefs without being interfered with and without the threat of violence.
With the greatest respect to the SDLP Members, may I say that the mark of the Parades Commission has been the very thing that they have criticised? The commission has been about giving in to the greater threat of violence, as has been seen time and again. The hon. Member for Foyle talked about the Parades Commission rewarding good behaviour, yet on so many occasions that has not been the approach that it has taken. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) will discuss the situation in Portadown. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made clear, that district has been engaged in dialogue with all groups and all types of people. It had been told, “There is no walking unless you talk.” It has talked and talked to whoever will listen, yet still it is not allowed to walk. Why is that? It is because we are allowing narrow-minded hatred and bigotry to prevent the creation of the kind of society that we want in Northern Ireland, which is one based on tolerance and respect, not segregation. I know that the hon. Member for South Down was well intentioned in what he said, but he talked about my rights being permitted and that is precisely the wrong approach to take to the situation in Northern Ireland. Surely what we want is consensus and people coming together to agree; we do not want a situation in which people say, “We own this territory. This is nationalist territory. If you want to walk in it, you need our permission.” [Interruption.]
Order. I appeal for no sedentary comments to be made, and I address that remark to the whole House. A number of hon. Members are hoping to make their own contributions. I cannot compel hon. Members to take interventions or otherwise, but I hope that there will be no sedentary reaction.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was outlining why we believe that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East made clear, the Parades Commission has become part of the problem, not the solution. The fact that the situation of a number of parades remains unresolved 10 or 12 years or more after its creation testifies to the reality that it has failed to deal with those issues. We believe that one of its fundamental flaws is that it is a body of arbitration. We need processes that deal with mediation, with the facilitation of discussion and with local agreements being reached. We are not getting that from the Parades Commission—it has failed in its remit in that respect and has largely become a body of arbitration. That is not the way in which to build a society where there is tolerance and respect. If we are to create the kind of society envisioned by the authors of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement—call it what one may—we do not just need to see lip service paid to those high principles and objectives; we need to see practical attitudes adopted, changes in attitude and people not being disparaging about parades on 12 July. It is a shame that the hon. Member for South Down would not take it upon himself some year to come to the 12 July parade in Belfast, so that he could see for himself the pageantry and the colour.
I have no problem with viewing the tourist attractions of the 12 July parades, be they in Downpatrick or Belfast, and I support local industry. I have never received an invitation to the Belfast parades, but where would I stand? Would it be in the Ormeau road or somewhere else?
We might even get the hon. Gentleman a place on the platform. I will ensure that he is issued with an invitation to the 12 July parades; I am sure that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), who is not here today but who is a contender for the leadership of his party, will be able to find a suitable location for the hon. Member for South Down to view the parade going up the Lisburn road on its way to the field.
It is that kind of engagement that we want to promote. Unfortunately, ignorance sometimes breeds mistrust, and it can lead to the sort of misunderstandings that result in the confrontation that we have seen in the past. The loyal orders have made real efforts to reach out. They have looked at how their parades are presented and how people regard them. Those efforts have to be recognised.
It was disappointing that we did not hear any recognition of that effort from the SDLP. The hon. Member for Foyle will be aware of the efforts by the Apprentice Boys of Londonderry, for example, to reach out across the community.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way this time. I wanted to intervene on this point earlier, because he seemed to suggest that our approach was based on territorialism. I totally opposed Martin McGuinness when he said in response to the Garvaghy road incidents of 1996 that the Apprentice Boys should not be allowed to march on the west bank of Derry. I said that they would always have the right to march there, and that was one of the things that helped to create the dialogue that has led to the much improved situation in respect of several Apprentice Boys parades in Derry.
Let me be the first to acknowledge the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in promoting dialogue in his home city. However, my point is that it is not good enough to have that dialogue in one area only, as we need to promote it across Northern Ireland. Moreover, it was not the Parades Commission that brought about the success in Londonderry, but local leadership. That is precisely why the model proposed by Lord Ashdown is right: it promotes local leadership, dialogue and solutions, and that is what we want. That is the kind of mature society that we are aiming for—the political maturity that comes with the shared future that is our objective in Northern Ireland.
I want to end with a question that I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to when he winds up the debate. Representations have been made to me about the chairperson of the Parades Commission, and he will be aware that when she was appointed she made a number of claims about the qualifications that made her eligible for the position. Some doubts are now being cast on those qualifications, and questions have been asked of the Northern Ireland Office about them that I hope that the Minister will be able to answer. Are they valid? I cannot verify that to be the case, but it is my duty as a public representative to ensure that a person who chairs such an important and sensitive body, and who is involved in very sensitive work, is transparent before the public.
We need to know all the qualifications that the chairperson of the Parades Commission put on her CV when she applied for the post. Were they validated by the Northern Ireland Office when the appointment was made? I hope that the Minister will be able to address that point in his response.
I am finding the debate interesting already, and I am sure that my colleagues are anxious to make a contribution to it. I listened to the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), and I assure him that my constituents have a great interest in ensuring that the economy, the health service and many other bread-and-butter issues are attended to with vigour. Those matters are devolved to the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the leader of my party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, was right to say that they are constantly raised in the Executive. They will certainly be attended to on behalf of our constituents.
However, one matter relevant to the peace and stability of our beloved Province remains the responsibility of this House—the thorny issue of the right to parade without threats or intimidation, and free from republican agitation. This issue must be faced. We heard an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) reminding us that as it was the Queen’s highway, we had no right to walk it, but we had permission to walk it. I am happy to get that permission from Her Majesty. I hope the hon. Gentleman will always remember that, and always apply for permission to walk the Queen’s highway. I can assure him that those whom we are speaking about, who seek the right to walk the Queen’s highway, do so in honour and in support of Her Majesty.
I am glad to have the opportunity to address the House on a very sensitive yet very important issue that impacts greatly on the people of Northern Ireland. I declare an interest. I was brought up outside a little town, Stewartstown, in the heart of the Mid-Ulster constituency. I was raised in a family that was connected with the Orange Institution. My father was the master of the local lodge and I was proud to walk by his side. I declare an interest: I am a member of the Orange Institution, of the Royal Black Institution and of the Apprentice Boys of Londonderry. I am proud to have the privilege of that membership.
In all the years that I have walked as a member of those institutions and the lodges, I did so not to give offence to anyone, and we certainly did not desire offence from anyone, either. Sadly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East pointed out, Gerry Adams was recorded as having admitted that for years, before the situation happened at Drumcree or in Pomeroy or in other parts of the Province, Sinn Fein and the republican movement had been stirring up an anti-loyalist parade fervour, not because the community dissented from parades—many nationalists throughout Northern Ireland have been happy to watch the parades.
I was disappointed that the hon. Member for South Down had missed so much of his life by not coming out and watching a parade. He did not need to come to Belfast. If permission was given to walk the highway in Downpatrick, he could see a colourful parade there. That would do his heart good.
I am happy that the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that. When I was listening earlier, I confess that I thought that in his years of public life, he had missed the happy occasion of watching the parades in the South Down area.
As I was pointing out, the local community did not dissent from the parades. But blatant sectarianism stirred up by a group of people in Northern Ireland. Gerry Adams admitted that he and his grouping were at the heart of that. That is what brought the anti-parades sentiment to a head. It is clear that right from the beginning, the campaign was engineered and moved from an isolated incident to different areas of the Province, thereby unnecessarily dividing and unsettling the community.
Sinn Fein created a monster that they do not have the power to contain, although they do not acknowledge that. They were happy to stir up the anti-parade fervour whenever it suited them, but my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) knows that they now seem to be saying that they do not have the power to stop the agitation. They created the monster that is in our society, but now they are not able to capture and quieten it.
Since that time, republican opposition to loyal order parades has been a running sore. It must be settled. The issue is fundamental to freedom and must be addressed and resolved. Over the years the Democratic Unionist party has campaigned for confidence-building measures among the Unionist community to face the onslaught of more than 30 years of IRA terrorism.
One of those issues is the issue on the Order Paper tonight. Solving the problems that have been associated with parades is a fundamental prerequisite to political progress and stability in Northern Ireland. Sad to say that over the years, successive Governments have yielded to the threats of those who have opposed our parades. It was easier for them to give in, rather than to stand up and give the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland their rights to parade Her Majesty’s highway.
Let us think about the situation in Drumcree. We have a traditional parade. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, because he tried to say that we were bringing parades into areas where they were not welcome, but such parades were traditional and were welcomed for many, many years, going back 20, 30, 40, 50 or even more years. However, because of deliberate agitation, the traditional parade was taken from the Orange brethren and sisters and regarded as a contentious parade. It is sad to say that instead of dealing with the situation, the Parades Commission as a body—I know many individual members of the commission, and many of their efforts in this regard have been well-meaning—took the easy option whenever the objectors to a parade were showing muscle, as it were.
In Maghera, a neighbourhood near where I lived, the Orangemen re-routed their parade to keep the procession away from any disorder from the objectors. What did we find? The commission yielded to the threats and intimidation. That is a totally unacceptable position. It is now a reality that the commission is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.
I want to allow my hon. Friends to take part in this debate. However, I must first make it abundantly clear to the Government tonight that although they, and the Prime Minister, have put a lot of effort into policing and justice issues, and although I acknowledge the Prime Minister’s effort, time and energy on the financial side—we will make a determination on that, as I am sure others will—parading is not a stand-alone issue. The issues of building community confidence will not go away. Parading is one of the issues that must be addressed and attended to. It is a case of acknowledging not only that there is a problem, but that there must be a resolution of the problem, so that when Orange brethren walk the streets of Northern Ireland, they do so without threats and intimidation.
It was very sad that recently in Rasharkin, we saw, standing among those who are supposed to be dissident republicans, the very members of Sinn Fein. They were standing in the crowd whenever there was violent opposition to the Orangemen walking in the town of Rasharkin. There has to be acknowledgment that the Orangemen and Orangewomen are a part of Northern Ireland’s community. They have a proud tradition and also a proud culture. That must be recognised. Some people seek, by threats and intimidation, to remove what is termed the “Orange feet” from the road, but the Government must realise, as the other parties must, that the Orangemen and Orangewomen are not leaving the Province. We are here to stay. Parading is a vital part of our Province.
A village neighbouring mine is more than 95 per cent. Unionist, yet there is a Hibernian parade. There is absolutely no problem with that parade, because if people do not go out to see it, they have the freedom of having their tea in their kitchen or they can sit in comfort with their own family, but they are not bothering anyone. Why can the rest of our community not live and let live, and allow us to have a peaceful and stable society, where we can bring prosperity for everyone in the Province that we love?
Belatedly, I wish to pull up the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady) for their lecturing of right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the Chamber about consultation and inclusion. Back in 1985, their party was happy to ignore 1 million Protestants and their elected representatives and push through the infamous Anglo-Irish agreement, which I believe was the beginning of our troubled history. Their leader at the time, John Hume, when asked why Unionist views were not sought, said that
“they wouldn’t have accepted it.”
So much for inclusion.
There are no contentious parades in the constituency I represent. While I do not wish to be contentious, it is my duty to put on record how we arrived at the difficult scenario that throws up scenes of agitation and violence at parades that, until the outbreak of our troubles, passed off peacefully and were attended by both Protestants and Catholics. My colleagues and I want to see a day when Catholics and Protestants can celebrate the great pageant of 12 July together. That was the case when I was a young girl growing up in Belfast, and I hope that those days will return.
Parading is one of the most popular and common forms of cultural celebration around the world, from Bastille day in France to the 4 July parades in the US. It brings millions of people across the globe out on to the streets to take part in something that provides enjoyment and colour in many lives.
Parades have been made a contentious issue by republicans in Northern Ireland since the early 1980s—including the right of process in Portadown. It has also long been the policy of Sinn Fein to turn the ordinary people of Northern Ireland against parades, by making them appear to be more of a hindrance than a form of celebration.
The Orangemen are the real victims in all this. It is the residents of the Garvaghy road and the Ormeau road who sought, through a sectarian campaign, to make the order look bad by playing the victim themselves. The residents do not like to talk about their blinkered and sectarian motives.
In the early to mid-1990s, Sinn Fein, through so-called residents’ groups, actively campaigned to disrupt and stop Orangemen walking their traditional routes. Parades that traditionally took place in Drumcree, Portadown, County Armagh and the Ormeau road in south Belfast immediately come to mind. Orangemen in Drumcree had walked their route for at least 150 years, largely without trouble, until republicans focused on parades. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has obviously been researching the same material as I have, but it is worth reiterating what Gerry Adams said on the issue:
“Ask any activist in the north, did Drumcree happen by accident, and they will tell you ‘no’. Three years of work on the Lower Ormeau Road, Portadown, and parts of Fermanagh and Newry, Armagh and in Bellaghy, and up in Derry.”—
“Three years of work went into creating that situation and fair play to those people who put the work in. They are the type of scene changes that we have to focus on and develop and exploit.”
I did not hear the hon. Members for Foyle and for South Down put down that sort of mentality. Instead, they berated us at every turn—[Interruption.] If they did, I did not hear it and I apologise—
I made direct reference to what the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said. I took no issue with it and I pointed out the danger that it could be repeated under the new regime that is being discussed. Many of the people involved with the dissidents are of the old school that was involved in precisely the activities that the hon. Lady has just mentioned.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification, but I honestly did not hear that. He went on quite some time.
What Mr. Adams demonstrates here is his party’s blatant disregard for traditional parading and his use of it for political gain. This is a tactic employed by Sinn Fein in order to heighten sectarian tensions after the ceasefires, and to turn the spotlight on Unionists in order to make us as a people look sectarian and bigoted. It is its aim to label loyalists and Unionists as sectarian.
Nationalists and republicans have sought to organise protests labelled as peaceful. This year, we saw violent behaviour on the Springfield road in the middle of the annual Whiterock parade. Orangemen waited up to one hour to gain access through the Workman’s gate, which separates the Springfield road from the Shankill. When the Orangemen walked through they were pelted with missiles and verbal abuse. Many of those waiting at the other side of the gate were not from the area and had been transported in to allow the media to get some good photographs, knowing that those images would be sent around the world for all to see.
We see sectarian tensions being stirred up in many areas of County Antrim, namely Dunloy and Rasharkin. Members of the loyal orders as well as band members who live locally have been subject to abuse on and off parade as well as having their homes attacked. That has been orchestrated by Sinn Fein, once again seeking to stir and create angry confrontations in the north Antrim area of Rasharkin. Protestants are being chased from small predominantly Catholic towns that were previously evenly mixed in north Antrim. Only a few weeks ago a man had his house attacked for the second time this year. He is now going to leave his home. Such people need help from the Northern Ireland Office, and they need protection.
Parading in Northern Ireland is viewed by Sinn Fein as a product of British imperialism. It has been jumped upon by Sinn Fein, which argues that Unionists have no culture and no identity. It sees it as something that it can manipulate and undermine for its benefit. In the early 1990s, Gerry Adams, a self-proclaimed author, argued that Ireland would not be free until all elements of Britishness were removed from the state of Northern Ireland. That included Orange parades. When one reads the stories of Drumcree, one comes to understand what republicans sought to do. In many ways they were successful. However, it highlights the strength and power of republicanism and how they sought to undermine the rights of those men wanting to parade. It demonstrates the fascist nature of Sinn Fein.
We now have Sinn Fein blocking Orangemen from parading through the Parades Commission, and waving the word “dialogue” in front of the commission. This summer we had the self-proclaimed peacemaker, Gerry Adams, offer to have talks with the Orange Order. This image of Gerry Adams today contradicts the real picture of him over 10 years ago.
On 14 July this year, Martin McGuinness said:
“If the Orange Order are serious about wanting nationalist and republican political leaders to respect them, then they need to respect our community and respect the wishes of the vast majority of people to live in peace free from sectarian harassment. To date the leadership of the Orange Order have refused to meet with Sinn Fein, the party most nationalists actually vote for. What message does that send out about respecting the nationalist community? The Orange Order need to sit down face to face with Sinn Fein and I once again today extend that invitation.”
This statement stinks of hypocrisy. Sinn Fein is seeking to play the honest broker here, despite planting the seeds of conflict over parades.
The Parades Commission, established in 1998, sought to regulate parades in Northern Ireland, and it is felt by many in the Unionist community that the Parades Commission, as an unelected organisation, simply seeks to discriminate against it as a community. Through its unelected representatives, put there by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it seeks to act for the Northern Ireland Office. Its set up is simply seen as creating bureaucracy and setting hurdles for bands and lodges to jump through. As a body appointed and set up by the Government it is not representative of the community, nor is it publicly accountable. It needs to go. That is something that my party has long campaigned for.
I do not wish to go into history in much detail, but I have to say this. Many people in this very House would not be standing here if it were not for the efforts of King William of Orange who defeated King James at the Boyne. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the revolution of 1688. I accept that times have changed, but we must not forget our history.
Orangemen have a right to parade. That right is on the same level as the freedoms of speech and protest. These rights are being undermined by our Government, who have bought into the Sinn Fein idea that the Orange Order is part of the problem, just as they did with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment. As a Government who talk about community inclusion and cohesion and about building a multicultural society, it is obvious that they seek to exclude Northern Ireland Orangemen from that policy.
I am calling on our Government to understand Unionist history, identity and culture—much of which is shared with the rest of this United Kingdom. Our Government have sought to erase our identity by the removal of all things British, from symbols to flags to the dilution of the English language through the promotion of Irish. The people of Ulster are some of the most loyal subjects of this kingdom, yet our Government continue to dance to the republican record. I urge the Government to listen to the views of right hon. and hon. Members from my party and seek consensus on a way of dealing with this issue once and for all.
Parading is very important to many people in Northern Ireland; it is a fundamental aspect of cultural commemoration. In fact, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, there are several thousand parades in Northern Ireland. Many are uniformed youth organisation parades, church parades and mayors’ parades that are totally innocuous and that are not referred to the Parades Commission or anyone else, because they proceed without let or hindrance on a regular basis.
A small number of parades that have been mentioned this evening and on many occasions in recent years have been subject to problems as a result of an orchestrated campaign against them. For a moment or two, I want to discuss an issue that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and that is oftentimes not referred to. There are parades in Northern Ireland, such as the one that I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) will refer to shortly, which goes close to the Garvaghy road and the nationalist area there, and the parade in Rasharkin in County Antrim, a village where there is a Catholic majority. However, parades in other parts of Northern Ireland are nationalist in nature and they go through predominantly Unionist towns and villages. That, for some reason, receives very little attention or media interest. The reason for that is that they are not controversial, because no one in those villages or towns decides to orchestrate planned opposition to those parades.
I refer to parades such as those that take place in Desertmartin, in Kilkeel in south Down and in Limavady in my constituency each St. Patrick’s day. Those towns are predominantly Unionist or predominantly Protestant; the parades are nationalist or Catholic parades. The host community, as they are sometimes called by those who object to Orange parades, does not object to those parades taking place. They are therefore not referred to the Parades Commission, there is no controversy and no dispute and they proceed unhindered. The problem, of course, is that in the other areas, such as Portadown and Rasharkin, there is not the same reaction. Communities in those areas decide that they will orchestrate opposition and objection and we therefore have some of the problems that have been mentioned.
On a number of occasions in recent weeks, it has been said that the entire issue of policing and justice is part of the completion process in our devolutionary journey. Members have also said that, without the issue of parading being resolved, the devolution of those powers would be a hollow achievement that might, in fact, backfire badly. I concur with that opinion, because, otherwise, we could have the annual prospect—this July, next July and the July after that—of an unresolved problem that is kept at the forefront of people’s minds. There has been agitation by dissidents, and I accept the Government’s view on that agitation; however, on several occasions there has also been agitation by Sinn Fein representatives.
For example, in Rasharkin, the local Assembly Member was, unfortunately, identified as being part of a crowd in vocal and subsequently violent opposition to the loyal order parade that was taking place. That is more than deeply regrettable; it is something that must be resolved. That political party, Sinn Fein, needs to do much more in ensuring that its MLAs and other public representatives not only do less to provoke tension, but do more to try to ensure that there is less opposition to parades. We need to move forward, beyond the Parades Commission, and I know that the Minister in his early submission indicated that, whatever the commission’s relevance 11 years ago, times have moved on. They have, and I hope that we can get the Ashdown review out in the open and hear comments that are based on the facts, as opposed to people’s fears or concerns about what it might propose.
I shall close by mentioning further moves that Sinn Fein needs to make to try to defuse tensions and local problems in local areas. For example, in my constituency just last week, the local Sinn Fein Assembly Member, Mr. Francie Brolly, who is aged 71, announced that he intends to stand down from the Assembly within the next few weeks. At the close of any career, be it in politics or other parts of the republican movement, a person who steps to one side can do much to defuse tensions in relation to parades and other matters that need to be resolved, such as the Claudy bomb in 1972. If the hon. Member who represents Sinn Fein in that House had some revelations or disclosures to make about any part that he may have played, along with the late “Father” James Chesney, many people would I am sure welcome that closure. We all need to work towards further progress on parades in order to bring closure to an aspect of our past and to allow people to parade in peace and security.
In supporting this very important motion, I declare an interest: my membership of the Orange Institution, the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys of Londonderry. My family have been associated with those organisations for well over 100 years, and I am very proud of that fact.
I’m not that old, no.
I am aware that the significance and centrality of parading in Northern Ireland is not always fully appreciated or understood on the mainland, but, whatever view one holds of Ulster’s parading tradition, the motion raises some fundamental points of principle that go to the heart of democracy. Famously, it has been said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
I am not asking everyone to share the importance attached to parading by many people in Ulster, including myself, but surely the default position must always be to defend the basic right to assemble and to process freely. The right of free assembly and procession is a human right long fought for and hard won. A nation such as this, at a time such as this, when we remember the sacrifice of those, numbered in their millions, who fell in defence of basic freedoms, should above all others defend and cherish those basic rights and freedoms.
Indeed, I will go further. If this freedom is to be denied, those who would deny it must present a cast-iron court case for that denial—but that has not happened in Northern Ireland. The right to assemble and process on the streets of Ulster has been challenged by so-called residents groups, which were spawned largely by Sinn Fein. That was not done out of a sense of offence, but purely for political reasons and political advantage. That has even been claimed by Gerry Adams. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) outlined the programme shown in prime time on RTÉ in 1997, a brief part of which says:
“Three years of work went into creating that situation and fair play to those people who put the work in. They are the type of scene changes that we have to focus on and develop and—
the key word—
So disputes around parades are not about offence or triumphalism; they are not about the intimidation of residents. They are a cynical manoeuvre by Sinn Fein to increase their political support. The history of these disputes has proved that to be the case. Sinn Fein have been fully prepared to use the parading issue as a tool in their overall strategy. When it suits them, they defuse tension and reduce open opposition to loyal order marches. On the other hand, when it suits them, they can ratchet up tension.
Let me ask the House this: how does that help to build public confidence? Would not a permanent end to the republican culture war against the loyal orders greatly help the creation of that confidence? Gerry Adams said recently that there will be a place for the loyal orders in a united Ireland—how gracious of him. Yet he is the very same person who has opposed their legitimate place in Northern Ireland right up to this present day. Sadly, the law enforcement authorities have been tainted with the same sort of attitude. The concerns of politically motivated residents groups are treated on a par with those of the loyal orders. As a result, the right of British citizens to assemble and parade is denied, often on very spurious grounds.
In my own constituency we have one of the most infamous examples of that. Portadown Orangemen seeking to return from their annual service at Drumcree parish church have been unable to do so for well over a decade, despite that parade’s having taken place for well over 150 years. The Northern Ireland Parades Commission repeatedly calls for local agreement to be reached in such situations. The Ashdown review of parading also places great emphasis on dialogue and mediation. The local Orange district has agreed to enter into dialogue without any preconditions. One person continues to prevent that from taking place: Mr. Brendan McKenna of the local residents group.
Brendan McKenna is the one person who refuses to talk—and from his perspective, why should he? He has absolutely no incentive to do so. All that he has to do is sit with his arms folded as the Parades Commission does his work for him. Every year—no, I will go further—every week he knows that it will ban the parade. Mr. McKenna, the enemy of civil and religious liberty, is rewarded for refusing to talk. Meanwhile, those who are willing to talk are continually penalised. That utter and craven failure on the part of the Parades Commission is evidence of why it has failed, why it is part of the problem rather than of the solution, and why it must be got rid of. It is a disgrace that individuals such as the Brendan McKennas of this world can hold the entire community to ransom, and that he is facilitated in his bigotry by the Parades Commission.
I cite Drumcree because I am very familiar with it, but I can cite other examples in my constituency. For example, there is the ongoing attempt by republicans to do in Lurgan what they have done in Drumcree. They are attempting to turn parts of the town centre into no-go areas, and they have attempted to deny the loyal orders use of the public transport there as they travel to other parts of the Province for larger parades.
Similar scenarios can be found in different parts of Northern Ireland. On a slightly different but related matter, I can cite the situation in the town of Banbridge, again in my constituency, where republicans are up to their necks in a campaign aimed at sectarianising the town over the issues of flags and some parades. They are trying to create community tensions where none had previously existed. Is that a recipe for public confidence?
There are other problems in other parts of Northern Ireland. I think of the ongoing campaign of sectarian intimidation in places such as Rasharkin, where the Protestant community has been subjected to an unrelenting campaign of abuse, intimidation and violence, all with the sole aim of driving it out of the village. One tactic has been to oppose parades in the village, and who is intimately involved in each protest? It is the local Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly. Who has people involved at the heart of local residents groups? That is right—once again, it is Sinn Fein. Does the Minister believe that that is a recipe for building public confidence?
Moving forward, everyone has a part to play. As I indicated at the start of my speech, as an Orangeman I know that the loyal orders will not be found wanting. They responded positively to Lord Ashdown’s review. The Orange Order has stated that it remains committed to playing a full part in creating a Northern Ireland that is a peaceful, stable and fair society founded on mutual respect and trust. The loyal orders have also been at the forefront of initiatives designed to develop the community and tourist potential of parades, particularly around 12 July. On that matter I commend my Democratic Unionist party colleagues, the Tourism Minister, Arlene Foster and the Culture Minister, Nelson McCausland for their practical help and support. [Interruption.] And their predecessors.
All of us must do what we can to address and resolve the parading issue, and if it is to be resolved, the sentiments contained in the motion would be a good place to start. I support the motion; would that all hon. Members did the same.
Unlike many of my colleagues who have spoken this evening, I am not one of Northern Ireland’s serial paraders, but I do believe that the issue is important. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who initially took the view that perhaps there were more important matters to discuss, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, we have on other occasions sought to raise other issues, such as the economy. Of course, however, many of those issues are now dealt with by the devolved Administration, so that is where the debate on them takes place.
The debate concerns an issue that, for a number of reasons, is important. The first is that the treatment of one section—a decent section—of Ulster society by the Parades Commission has caused deep hurt. I think of the fears and hurt of those people, many of whom are constituents of mine. As I said, I am not a member of an Orange lodge, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Royal Black Institution or any such order. However, many of the people involved are good, solid, law-abiding citizens who believe that the actions and intervention of the commission in the activities in which they wish to engage regularly—for example, marching to display their culture, history and religious beliefs—almost sullies those honourable activities.
The subject is important for a second reason that has been pointed out by a number of hon. Members already. We are moving towards the completion of devolution in Northern Ireland, and a lot of hard work has gone into it. I believe that it is a desirable goal and we should pursue it vigorously. However, if we are to complete the devolution of policing and justice, we cannot do it in isolation from ending the contention surrounding the parades issue. If anything will destabilise policing and justice, it is the fact that we remain without the machinery to resolve the contentious parades in Northern Ireland. As others have pointed out, the Parades Commission has not been the vehicle for doing that, despite some of the points made by the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady). I want to address their points in a moment or two. However, for those two reasons, it is important that the issue is addressed.
The anger against the Parades Commission has been generated for a number of reasons. First, every parade or public demonstration—indeed, every public activity on the streets of Northern Ireland—must first be referred to the commission. I get people coming to me in my constituency who want to arrange motorbike ride-outs and classic car rallies, as well as civic parades and sometimes church parades for uniformed organisations. All of them have to be referred to the commission. The point that many of them make to me is that there is nothing contentious about their activities—in fact, many of them are cross-community activities. Yet they have to pass through the filter of the Parades Commission and be applied for. Many of the Orange parades and those of other institutions are not contentious either, but they have to be filtered through the commission as well. The implication is always that there is something contentious about the parades. People resent that.
Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) pointed out, the Parades Commission is an arbitrator, but does not seek to facilitate or mediate in these contentious situations. Sometimes, arbitration itself can do damage. People have come into my office complaining about the prescriptive conditions laid down by the commission. A pedantic jobsworth in the Police Service of Northern Ireland might apply those prescriptive conditions if, for example, a parade has not started at 7 o’clock on the dot, even though it might be waiting for a busload of people to arrive.
Sometimes that busload of people will be held up as a result of police activity. If the parade waits two or three minutes for them to arrive, the police will want to take action and refer the parade back to the Parades Commission because of a breach of the conditions. Had the jobsworth thought it through, he would have realised that it would be far better to have everybody included in the parade, rather than having some stragglers arriving after it starts. That is one of the problems, and I could give lots of other examples. Being that prescriptive sometimes causes problems that are not necessary and that, had the parade not been referred to the Parades Commission in the first place, would not have arisen.
The third reason is the bias that is seen in the Parades Commission, whether in its make-up—there is a long history of objections to what is seen as its biased make-up—or, even more so, in the decisions that it makes. In many instances, especially where there are contentious parades, those decisions seem to be made on the basis of who presents the biggest threat. The more that a group is prepared to lean on people or—this is the worst of it—the more that it has a history of being able not only to make the threat but to deliver it, the more weight the Parades Commission seems to give to its arguments.
The suggestion has been made that taking away the Parades Commission would put the police in the front line. However, on many occasions people have come to me and said, “Look, we believe we made a good case to the Parades Commission. We don’t know how they reached their decision at the end of the day, but we ticked all the boxes that they asked us to tick. However, the police came in afterwards and, on the basis of what they said, the attitude of the Parades Commission changed.” Whether the hon. Members for Foyle and for South Down like it or not, the police already have an input. They are already in the front line and are part of the decision-making process with the Parades Commission anyhow.
I believe that in many instances the police make the judgment as to who presents the biggest threat. As most of those who are involved in the loyal orders are ordinary, decent, hard-working, law-abiding, solid citizens, the judgment is that they are not the ones who will cause the trouble. Rather, the judgment is that those who, through protest, have a record of causing street disorder are the ones to whom we must pay most attention. Therefore, the bias is towards them.
The hon. Member for Foyle talked about what would happen if we disturbed the Parades Commission. Despite the fact that the SDLP claims to be a radical organisation, there is no group of people who want to maintain the status quo and the establishment more, regardless of how badly it is seen to work, how inadequate it is or how much times have changed. The SDLP will always want to defend the status quo, and as the Parades Commission came about not as a result of the Patten commission, but nevertheless because of nationalist demands, it must stay, even if it does not work, even if there is a better way and even if there are still things that it has been unable to resolve.
A number of arguments have been put forward. The first is that we should look at how many parades take place without any violence or confrontation, as if that were down to the Parades Commission. In many cases the Parades Commission simply has no input. It receives the applications and rubber-stamps them, but it does not do anything else. That parades take place without violence is down to the good sense and good community relations that exist in a place, so let us not attribute successes to the Parades Commission for which it is not responsible.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but his assumption is that, somehow or other, that was to do with the existence of the Parades Commission. Just because we see something happening, and we see a change taking place, it does not necessarily tell us the cause of that change. Indeed, many of the changes have happened as a result of the work of people in their local areas, outside the work of the Parades Commission. That is the whole point of the Ashdown proposals, as I understand them. We want to see more of that work, yet the Parades Commission appears to be acting as a block to it, or ignoring it and rewarding intransigence. People are therefore arguing that the commission should be done away with.
A further argument in defence of the Parades Commission is that, if we replaced it with something else, those who wished to cause disruption would test the new arrangements. The truth is that anyone who wishes to contest parades can do that through the Parades Commission, and a new body will not necessarily lead to more people saying, “Let’s test the new body.” Indeed, they would know, given the weakness of the Parades Commission’s record and the conditions that it attaches to its decisions, that that is the body that really needs testing.
The hon. Gentleman asks that, yet he is asking us to believe that something that is not yet in existence will produce the effect that he has described. He asks me for evidence: there is a body on the ground through which, in the past, people have tried to use the rules that it has made to try to stop parades. We know that that has happened. He is speculating about a body that is not even in place.
Like me, the hon. Member will have listened to many of his colleagues saying that Sinn Fein is the problem. They have outlined Sinn Fein’s agenda and motives, which they say are still current in relation to this issue, but none of them has said how the Ashdown proposals will get around the problem—if that is the problem.
I am going to conclude now, but let me reiterate that, in most cases of contentious parades that have been sorted out, they have been sorted out not by someone arbitrating and saying, “You will do this, and the other people will do that”, but by people sitting down and by mediation. The whole thrust of the Ashdown proposals, as I understand them, is that we should replace this arbitration, which is seen to be biased, with mediation. That is the mature way forward, and I believe that that is an important factor. I am a supporter of the devolution of policing and justice, and I have proclaimed that publicly in a number of different ways. Let me make it clear to the Minister, however, that if we are to have that devolution, we shall also require a solution to the question of parading. Otherwise, it will not work.
I am clearly not standing here as a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament, but I serve on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and I am chairman of the all-party group on Northern Ireland. This issue has come up many times in debates held by those different groups when they have met in this House. I have been listening to the contributions from colleagues this evening, whether I was in the Chamber or detained elsewhere, and I would like to put to the Minister several questions that have not yet been addressed.
First, I understood that, under the original legislation, the timetable was for the recommendations of the strategic reviews to be implemented in the spring of this year. I think we all understood that to be the case. When does the Minister expect the final report to be published? Given that Ministers made estimates of the financial implications of the recommendations, based on the interim report, does he accept that those should be accounted for in the proposed financial settlement? I am not quite sure, after what he said earlier, whether that is the case.
How does the Minister expect to implement the strategic review’s final recommendations? Does he expect the proposals to be incorporated into the detail of a wider criminal justice and policing handover? If devolution of criminal justice and policing is delayed, for whatever reason, will the Government consider legislating for parades separately? I am not sure that what the Minister said earlier went as far as that, so I would be most grateful if he would clarify it.
Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the importance of bringing investment and prosperity to Northern Ireland, which is crucial to getting these issues sorted and ensuring that Northern Ireland participates as fully as it should in the economic success of the United Kingdom. I know from talking to people in the Province that they want to play their part. It is terribly important to deal with this issue sensitively, so that people feel that their voice is being heard, and they can go about their business lawfully in the knowledge that they have the support not just of this House, but of the wider community.
Can the Minister assure the House that devolution of criminal justice and policing will not be rushed through—before a general election, for example—at the expense of getting things right? If we get it wrong, we shall get it wrong for a very long time, so we need to think very seriously about these issues.
Lord Ashdown’s interim recommendations were discussed earlier. He advocated a strong role for local councils, but does the Minister accept that councils are too partisan on occasions, and that there are valid concerns that their role could undermine mediation? Does he agree that safeguards to account for the political allegiances of councils need to be considered and dealt with in this respect?
It is likely that 11 super-councils will be created by 2011, and will have a key role in dealing with parade mediation. Is the Minister confident that the transition will be smooth? Parades have historically brought to the fore the political and social tensions that still exist, as we know, as an undercurrent in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that it is crucial for peaceful parading not to be undermined by potential teething problems resulting from local government reform?
Finally, the strategic review’s interim report did not include recommendations relating to the Drumcree and Ormeau road parades. Is the Minister concerned that at the interim stage of the strategic review, agreement was not reached on the two parades that are perhaps in greatest need of guidance?
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser), who does a splendid job as chairman of the all-party Northern Ireland group, and who is also a member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee. I thank him for his interest in Northern Ireland. He was absolutely right to say that with policing and justice devolution, the crucial thing is to get it right—something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has said on a number of occasions. That must be the principle that guides us all in this context. As has been said, if we get this wrong, generations thereafter will bear the cost.
We have had an extremely good debate. As a number of speakers have said, it has been a measured debate, and I think that we have explored the issues thoroughly in the short time available. I want to commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East, the leader of our party, for the way in which he introduced the debate. He set out clearly the importance of this issue to the people of Northern Ireland—the people whom we represent—and, indeed, to the whole future of the stability of political institutions in Northern Ireland.
Some Members, notably the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), commented on the choice of topic. I commend him for voicing his concerns on this matter. He eventually acknowledged that we had been sincere in tabling the motion, because we wanted to tackle a running sore in politics and in the community in Northern Ireland. It is true that if we are to tackle the great issues involved in putting Northern Ireland on a more prosperous and better footing for everyone’s benefit, we must deal with the important matters that we are debating tonight, and it is appropriate that we are discussing them at the present juncture. Far too often we embark on contentious issues involving parading much too late in the calendar cycle, when controversy is at its height. Now the parading season is past, but we still have some time ahead of us, and I believe that we should use it constructively to air the issues and ensure that progress is made.
All too frequently the criticism from those in the loyal orders, and those who engage and seek to promote engagement, has been that when they spend their time trying to make progress and enter into debate and dialogue, no agreement is reached. Then the Parades Commission steps in, and does not recognise the efforts that have been made throughout the winter and spring months. All that is ignored and set aside, and the same or worse determinations are made each year, which only exacerbates the problem rather than leading to any kind of solution. It acts as a disincentive, and demoralises those who want to engage in debate and dialogue.
A number of Members have mentioned the importance of this issue in the context of the stability of Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) observed that, in terms of parades, this had been the quietest year for a long time. I remind him that in the aftermath of this year’s parade past the Ardoyne shops in my constituency, guns and blast bombs were used on the streets of Belfast. I would not necessarily describe it as one of the quietest years on record.
We must ensure that all elements of that kind are dealt with. People still want to cause disturbance and violence on our streets, and we must put an end to that. It is important for us, as parties in Northern Ireland, to demonstrate that we will not allow it to continue. We must make clear that we will not tolerate circumstances in which every year, before, on and after 12 July, we must stand on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere trying to calm people down and trying to work with others to restrain them from becoming involved in violence or anything like it. We must ensure that progress can be made.
Many Members recalled the history of this whole dispute. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East, my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and others referred to the significant role played by Sinn Fein in the fomenting of the trouble, and referred particularly to the statements made by Sinn Fein’s leader Gerry Adams. There is no doubt about the significant role that Sinn Fein have played in the circumstances with which we are now having to grapple, but as others have said, it is important to highlight the tourism potential in Orange and loyal order parades.
As a member of the Loyal Orange Institution as well as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, I am proud to say that the number of people who watch our parades is significantly on the increase. An independent survey conducted this year found that 62 per cent. of those who were in Belfast city centre on 13 July had never been at a parade before, and 98 per cent. said they would be back next year. Furthermore, the bed occupancy rate in Belfast hotels was 80 per cent., and some 200,000 to 250,000 people watched the event. The significance of all this is that while it is true that many people throughout the kingdom might ask about the relevance or vital importance of parading, in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, in some other parts of the United Kingdom, although less so—this issue goes to the heart of the community.
It certainly goes to the heart of the community that DUP Members represent. It is part of our culture and identity, and those—Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein and others—who decided to seek political advantage from the issue, and to disrupt the parades through violence and intimidation, knew exactly what they were doing. They knew that in doing that they would strike at the very heart of what makes a lot of Unionists and Protestant people in Northern Ireland tick. We have to find a way through these problems and difficulties, and ensure that those who want to foment trouble and disorder do not succeed.
It is right to put on record, as many already have, a tribute to those in local communities who have dedicated many hours—often at great personal expense, as they might have sacrificed time with their families, or time to look after their own interests—to their own community by stewarding parades and helping voluntarily to ensure that there was a peaceful outcome. They deserve to be commended throughout communities in Northern Ireland, as do those who go on parade and who, despite severe provocation on many occasions—despite being spat upon, having stones fired at them, and suffering verbal abuse and physical violence—have 100 per cent. of the time, certainly in recent years, been absolutely peaceful and dedicated to behaving in an entirely civil, peaceful and democratic way.
I was alarmed by the remarks of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) when he sought to redefine what a peaceful parade was. He argued that a parade might not be peaceful if it were contended, or if there was controversy surrounding it as a result of opposition from others. I totally reject that. The fact of the matter is that those who go on the parades in Northern Ireland do so entirely peacefully, and I wholly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) about the ordinary decency of the people who are involved in the loyal orders, and who come out on parade and do not want to get involved in violence in any shape or form.
A lot of our debate has necessarily centred on the Parades Commission and the strategic review of parading. The hon. Members for Foyle and for South Down put up a defence of the Parades Commission. I have to say that I do not agree with the Minister’s praise for the work of the Parades Commission. I agree with my party colleagues who have talked about the problems that the commission has caused by the way it has gone about its work, without acknowledging the progress that has been made where there has been engagement, and by setting its face against recognising and rewarding those who have engaged in good faith in trying to move things forward, and by instead rewarding those who have sat on their hands and done nothing except refuse to make progress.
Speaking on behalf of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) talked about the good deeds and good work that the Parades Commission had done, and said that although it does not enjoy complete support, it does enjoy some support. He is right to say that it enjoys some support, but it enjoys very little support in the Unionist community, as I hope he will know and acknowledge. That is why I was more encouraged by what the Minister said when he intervened in the debate and talked about the need for consensus, because that goes to the heart of things.
The commission deals with one of the most contentious issues in Northern Ireland, and it is roundly lacking in support right across the Unionist community. It might have some support from elsewhere, as we have heard from those on the Social Democratic and Labour party Benches and others in the nationalist community, but I dare say that if an opinion poll were conducted in the Unionist community—this has been reflected by the speeches made tonight—hardly any support would be found for the commission. It is clear that the argument has been won, and despite the last-gasp efforts of the SDLP to fly the flag for the Parades Commission, everybody recognises that its day is done, that it will have to be replaced, and that it will be replaced in due course.
There was a great deal of misunderstanding—I do not know whether it was due to a lack of information or whether it was deliberate—in what the hon. Member for South Down and others said about the role of the councils in the new dispensation under the Ashdown review; they displayed a lack of knowledge about the way in which the councils are involved in this matter. It is important that we recognise that far too often the Parades Commission has responded to threats, as has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who knows full well the situation in his constituency; it is one of the most contentious and controversial situations. He pointed out the unwillingness of those who are protesting against the Orangemen in that area to engage in a constructive way forward.
In the couple of minutes left available to me I wish to make some more general remarks. We have framed our motion in the context of the possibility of the devolution of policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland. There has been talk of financial packages and so on, and they are vital. I commend the tremendous work that has been done, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East, the leader of my party, in achieving tremendous progress on a financial package for Northern Ireland in relation to policing and justice. I also commend the contribution made and the work put in by the Government on that subject. However, we must remember and reiterate the fact that for us, the overriding issue is confidence in the community, and this is one key aspect of ensuring that there is confidence in the community.
One cannot have confidence in the community when people who are in government, sharing power, will not share a public road. One cannot have confidence in a situation where people are saying that they want to share a future but they will not say that someone is entitled to share a public highway. Until we reach a situation where there is mutual respect and a recognition that the loyal orders have the right to parade the public highway in a peaceful and democratic way, it is pointless talking about trying to create confidence. We need to ensure that confidence exists, and this area is a vital component of it. It is essential that we get resolution on these issues, because we cannot afford to enter any more years—next year or the year after that—with them unresolved, especially if progress is to be made on policing and justice.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall make some—necessarily brief—remarks. That this has been a good debate reflects both the importance of the issue and the controversy that it can still sometimes create as the debate ensues. I wish to respond to specific questions put by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) about the qualifications of the chair of the Parades Commission, Mrs. Rena Shepherd. He will understand that no specific qualifications were required for that post, so it was not appropriate, or indeed necessary, for checks to be carried out on qualifications as a part of the appointment process. However, I am sure that he and others will be reassured to learn that Mrs. Shepherd has confirmed to officials that her qualifications are, indeed, as stated on the record.
I have said throughout the debate that respect and dialogue are the twin foundation stones on which we must take things forward. Whatever model is used—the Parades Commission or something different—respect and dialogue are the answer, in the end, to the parades issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises that the right of free assembly and peaceful procession is an intrinsic human right and an important part of the British heritage; acknowledges the cultural significance of parading in Northern Ireland and its tourist potential; regrets the attempts by a minority to interfere with the right to parade peacefully; and accepts that it is a political imperative to resolve such matters, especially in a context where it is proposed to devolve policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland.