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Northern Ireland

Volume 566: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about riots in Northern Ireland. I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning that shameful violence and in expressing our profound sympathy and support for police officers who have been injured. It is also a matter of the gravest concern that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) was knocked unconscious as he tried to calm the situation on the streets of his constituency. I am certain that I speak for everyone here in wishing him well for a speedy recovery, and we all look forward to welcoming him back to his customary place very soon.

On Friday evening, following the annual 12 July parades, around 5,000 people gathered to protest against the Parades Commission determination not to allow three Orange lodges to return home past the nationalist Ardoyne area. This has been the scene of serious disorder in recent years, including shots fired at police by dissident republicans. Violence erupted as the crowd reached the police line on Woodvale road, preventing access to the route past the Ardoyne shop fronts. This has been followed by further disturbances and rioting on each night since then, mainly in the Woodvale parade/Twaddell avenue area, but also in the Newtownards road in east Belfast, Mount Vernon in north Belfast, Rathcoole in Newtownabbey, Portadown, and Ballyclare.

During these disturbances the police have come under attack from a variety of weapons, including fireworks, petrol bombs, bottles, stones, bits of masonry, iron bars and ceremonial swords. Last night, four blast bombs were thrown at police officers in east Belfast, as well as a pipe bomb improvised explosive device from Brompton park in the Ardoyne. Water cannon and AEP—attenuated energy projectile—plastic bullet rounds have been discharged on four successive nights, and 71 police officers have been injured. I am well aware of the anger felt by many people over the Parades Commission determination in relation to Ardoyne, but however strongly people feel, there can be absolutely no justification or excuse for the disgraceful behaviour we have seen in recent days. Attacks on the police are wholly unacceptable, and I condemn them without hesitation or reservation. It is also utterly disgraceful that the right hon. Member for Belfast North found himself, too, the victim of this violence.

There has been talk of attacks on British identity and culture in Northern Ireland. Well, the sort of behaviour that has been taking place in north Belfast does nothing to promote “Britishness” or the pro-Union cause; rather, it undermines it in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, it is hard to think of anything less British and less patriotic than wrapping yourself in a Union flag and going out to attack the people who are there to maintain the rule of law and protect the whole community.

So now it is the responsibility of everyone with influence, including the Orange Order, community leaders and politicians, to do all we can to defuse tensions and calm the situation. We need temperate language over the coming days. I am afraid that the Orange Order needs to reflect carefully on its role in encouraging mass protests on Friday in a highly volatile situation without the careful planning, stewarding and engagement with the police that is so important for keeping people safe when big crowds gather together. While the Orange Order’s announcement of the suspension of its protests was welcome, it is now time for it to call them off completely.

I would like to pay tribute to the outstanding work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland over recent days. The officers have demonstrated fortitude, determination and courage in defending the rule of law. They put their own safety on the line in the face of violent attacks, and they deserve our utmost praise, support and thanks, as do the police officers from Great Britain who provided mutual aid support. I would like to commend the leadership of Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Justice Minister David Ford. I know that meticulous planning took place to ensure that everything possible was done to try to keep people safe over the weekend of 12 July, including bringing approximately 1,000 mutual aid officers from Great Britain.

Of the 4,000 or so parades that take place annually in Northern Ireland, the vast majority pass off without major problems, including hundreds on 12 July. But any rioting is unacceptable, not least because it undermines efforts to secure economic recovery for Northern Ireland and because it makes competing in the global race for jobs and investment that much more difficult.

The way forward has to be through dialogue to find sustainable local solutions to contentious parades, as has been the case, for example, in Derry/Londonderry. I welcomed the talks that took place between members of the Orange Order and Ardoyne residents before the Parades Commission determination. I know how difficult this will be after what has happened, but I believe it is vital that that local dialogue continues. I also welcome the inclusion of parading in the remit of the Executive’s all-party working group and the appointment of the distinguished US former envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, to chair it. The Government have always made it clear that we are open to a devolved solution if one can be found, but in the meantime we will not tolerate lawlessness on the streets of Belfast any more than we would in any other UK city.

Last week in this Chamber, issues were raised regarding my powers in relation to Parades Commission determinations. Those powers are set out in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. Section 9 states that I can review a determination made by the Parades Commission only following a request by the Chief Constable. The reason he has not made such a request is that at all times he has been confident that the officers under his command can police the situation. I fully share that confidence.

To those on the streets over recent days taking part in this violence, I say this: so far 60 arrests have been made and emergency courts were sitting at Laganside on Sunday to accelerate the criminal justice process, but that is just the start. No stone will be left unturned in building the case needed for more arrests and more criminal convictions. Those who engage in so-called recreational rioting and attacks on police officers can expect to face the full force of the law.

I am confident that for some that will mean that the next 12 July holiday will be spent not out in the sunshine following the parades, but locked up in prison living with the consequences of the crimes they have committed. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for her usual courtesy in giving me advance sight of her statement. I also thank her and her officials for keeping me and my office updated over the course of the weekend. That was very much appreciated and in the best traditions of bipartisanship.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. It is right that the House has the opportunity to discuss these important matters.

I unequivocally condemn the violence that has taken place in Belfast over the past number of days and nights. There is no justification for it. The disgraceful attacks on the police have resulted in dozens of injuries, and the very deliberate attempt to murder officers by throwing blast bombs at them last night was shameful. It is also a matter of huge regret and concern that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) was also hurt. We wish him well.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the PSNI and its colleagues from other UK forces for their bravery and determination in upholding the law. Will she update us on the status of injured officers? Are any still receiving treatment? How many have returned to duty? Will she also tell us how many are PSNI officers and how many are from other UK forces? Is she able to say how many mutual aid officers are still undertaking duties in Northern Ireland, and how long she expects that to continue?

We know that the costs of policing large-scale public order incidents can be high. Does the Secretary of State have an estimate of how much the policing operations have cost to date, and who will meet that cost? Will it be her Department, the Department of Justice or a combination of the two?

There is always concern at the involvement of paramilitaries in or on the margins of contentious parades and protests. Has the Secretary of State looked at who was involved and who is being arrested? Is there any indication that loyalist paramilitaries or dissident republicans have organised or taken part in any of the violence?

The origins of the appalling scenes we have witnessed lie in a dispute about parading. We have been here before. Does the Secretary of State agree that meaningful dialogue and working towards local agreement is the key to finding a solution? It has worked well in other places, as she has said. The Orange Order held a peaceful, enjoyable and colourful celebration of 12 July as part of the UK city of culture celebrations in Derry/Londonderry. That was able to happen because of dialogue and communication between neighbours in an atmosphere of mutual respect and good will.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions she has had with the First and Deputy First Ministers, the Orange Order, residents’ associations, and local political and civic representatives over the weekend? Does she agree that, as Secretary of State, she has an important role to play in having further discussions over the coming weeks in north and east Belfast? As well as condemning the violence that has already taken place, does the Secretary of State agree that we need to work together to ensure it ends and does not occur in the future and to address some of the causes of these problems?

My view is that the British and Irish Governments still have a hugely significant role to play in helping to resolve all these issues. Does the Secretary of State agree that they should both be involved in the talks convened by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which are being facilitated by Richard Haass? Will she confirm that the Northern Ireland Office is working with the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on that, and has she discussed it, or will she discuss it, with the Tanaiste?

In conclusion, it is crucial to bring people together to look at what needs to happen now to prevent a repeat of what has happened over the weekend, when a disagreement that was not addressed led to significant tensions between communities and ended in unacceptable violence. What part can the Secretary of State play in the discussions that need to take place?

The main message that I and, I think, the House want to send is this: we encourage all those who are working to find a solution to these matters to keep going, to keep talking and not to give up. I say to those who are involved in parading and protesting, Unionist and nationalist, that respecting the law, respecting their neighbour and respecting the wishes of people right across the community to live in peace is the only way forward. That has been done in other places across Northern Ireland and it can be done in Belfast.

I very much welcome the comments of the shadow Secretary of State and particularly his joining me in condemning the violence. He is right to identify some of the attacks as deliberate attempts to murder police officers, which is utterly unacceptable and shocking. I will run through his long list of questions.

On the gravity of the injuries, the last update that I received was that overall, the injuries were not serious, although some police officers have been hospitalised. All those who were hospitalised as a result of the riots on 12 July were released from hospital fairly soon afterwards. I am not quite sure of the position on all the injuries that occurred last night, but my impression from my conversation with the Chief Constable this morning is that, thankfully, the injuries are again not of a serious nature. On the distribution of the injuries between mutual aid officers and PSNI officers, the figure for mutual aid officers over the weekend was two. Again, it is not clear whether any mutual aid officers were among those who were injured last night.

On the number of mutual aid officers, about 1,000 have been deployed over the past few days. Some will be going home and fresh mutual aid officers will be coming to Northern Ireland to provide assistance, so the numbers are relatively flexible. The Chief Constable is ensuring that he has the necessary resources.

The cost of the policing operation falls on the Department of Justice. Another damaging consequence of the events of recent days is that they put more pressure on police budgets.

The PSNI will naturally investigate what evidence there is of the involvement of the paramilitaries and assess who needs to be arrested. There has been a claim of responsibility from Oglaigh na hEireann in relation to the pipe bomb improvised explosive device that was thrown from the Ardoyne at police officers.

I agree that meaningful dialogue is the way forward. I have had a range of conversations on parading matters over recent months with residents’ groups, the Orange Order, the First and Deputy First Ministers, and other leading members of Northern Ireland’s political establishment. The Northern Ireland Office also sponsored a conference at Cardiff to promote dialogue and to keep people in touch with the police and one another in an attempt to defuse tensions in such situations.

I have had a number of conversations with the Tanaiste about the current situation and about a way forward, for example through the Richard Haass working group. I look forward to supporting the Executive in respect of the work of that group in whatever way they request.

I condemn the violence of the past few nights, for which, as the Secretary of State has said, there can be no excuse. I pay tribute to the brave men and women of the PSNI who risk their lives every day to try to keep the peace. I extend my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), whom I saw on the morning of 12 July at the Ardoyne. He was doing his best to maintain peace and calm in that area when there was something of a difficult situation, seemingly caused by the determination of the Parades Commission.

I was at several other places in Belfast on Thursday night and on Friday. With the exception of the Ardoyne in the morning, among the thousands of people I saw celebrating, there was not a single problem. Does the Secretary of State agree that the trouble has been caused by a very few people who were determined to cause trouble from the outset? Does she agree that those people in no way represent the good and decent people of Northern Ireland?

I agree that we should in no way judge the people of Northern Ireland by the actions of the disgraceful minority who have brought violence to its streets. I acknowledge that many thousands of people on the streets on 12 July were there just to celebrate a cultural event. They caused no problems whatever and were not remotely involved in the violence that followed later in the evening.

Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), I too wish a full and speedy recovery to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I think I speak for colleagues in saying that we look forward to welcoming him back to his place before very long.

Thank you for those kind words, Mr Speaker. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) will have heard them as he recovers this afternoon. I also thank the Secretary of State, the Opposition spokesman, the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), and all hon. Members who have spoken to me and my colleagues in recent days for their kind comments. I am confident that my right hon. Friend will be back with us before long.

We on this side of the House unequivocally condemn the violence that has occurred in recent days, and in the past, on the whole issue of parades. No violence can be justified in these circumstances. We stand firmly for the rule of law. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that the rule of law is applied fairly and impartially, and that whether it is a loyalist rioter or a Sinn Fein MLA obstructing the police in the course of their duty, the law must be applied equally, fairly and impartially?

We pay tribute to the police officers who have been injured and wish them a speedy recovery. We support the police, just as we support the rule of law. We do, however, have issues regarding the consistent lack of intervention by the police in the Short Strand area of east Belfast, where they have failed to protect people lawfully processing on the public highway. We need to examine why adequate protection is not afforded to those parading peacefully and lawfully. That is not, in any sense, to condone violence resulting from people being put under attack.

We have grave concerns about the operation of the Parades Commission. There is no doubt that the clear perception among many people in Northern Ireland is that the decision on the Ardoyne parade rewarded the violence of the previous year, to which the Secretary of State alluded in her remarks. That violence included dissident republicans opening fire on the police in the Ardoyne, and a huge of amount of petrol bombs and other devices being thrown at the police. We must not have a situation, in any circumstances, where violence is seen to be rewarded.

Finally, on the all-party working group, in which I have been asked to participate on behalf of my party, we are committed to finding ways forward on all of these contentious issues, including parades. However, may I say to the Secretary of State that if a shared future is to mean anything, it has to include shared space? If we have a situation in Northern Ireland where there are no-go areas, where one side of the community is not welcome, that is not a shared future and not shared space.

I reiterate my sympathies to the right hon. Member for Belfast North, who was doing such brave work to try to look after his constituents and found himself the victim of unacceptable violence. Of course I agree with the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) that the rule of law should be applied impartially, and I am absolutely convinced that the PSNI does that. I note his comments on what he perceives as the handling of the Short Strand area. Again, I hope I can provide reassurance that proportionality and fairness is at the heart of everything the PSNI does, whether in Short Strand or elsewhere. I note his comments on the Parades Commission. As I said, I understand the concerns about its decision, and I know that the debate continues on the future of the Parades Commission. I think the way forward to resolve these problems is through local dialogue, but channelling efforts, enthusiasm and energy into looking at options for future reform through the Richard Haass working group is also an important way forward. I also agree that in a shared future we need shared space. We need to find a way to ensure that different traditions can be celebrated in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

Obviously, and thankfully, the Army was not called in to support the PSNI. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether there remains an infantry unit in theatre that could do such a role if required?

I believe that it is inconceivable that we would see the Army back on the streets of Northern Ireland dealing with public order issues.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s statement? Anybody who has done her job will know its difficulties. However, may I press her to be more directly engaged, despite the meetings she has had, with the different groups that are very sensitive on this issue: from the Orange Order to republican groups, dissident groups and loyalist groups? There is a feeling in Northern Ireland, fairly or unfairly, that she is not rolling up her sleeves enough and getting people around the table. Is the Parades Commission perhaps being too aloof and legalistic in the way it is proceeding? It, too, needs to get into the negotiation business and not simply make determinations.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have been engaged in a whole range of discussions with the Orange Order, residents’ associations and a long list of people involved in these matters. I got the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, the PSNI and the Parades Commission around the table to talk about these issues. As far I am aware, that has never happened before. All of that took place in the months running up to 12 July —there was not a last-minute series of meetings immediately before the parades that has sometimes happened in the past. I am always keen to roll up my sleeves to get involved and do whatever I can. The reality is that this remains an extremely difficult problem to resolve, but I will be doing my very best, working with Northern Ireland politicians.

I would also like to express my support and appreciation for the Secretary of State’s statement, and my party’s concern for the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). I would like to make two points. First, the police have been through a brutal time over the weekend. As usual, the PSNI has performed absolutely superbly and I wish to express my party’s support for the courage and behaviour of the police. Secondly—the Secretary of State alluded to this in her statement—have the Government made a formal point to the relevant Orange Order to ask whether it sincerely feels in its heart that it helped or hindered events over the weekend?

I hope that the Orange Order is reflecting on the scenes of violence—they do not help any cause. They certainly do not assist the cause of cultural tolerance, and they certainly do not make it easy to resolve the matter next year in a way that is acceptable to all sides.

In condemning the violence right across Belfast and in other parts of Northern Ireland, and in extending best wishes to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), may I ask the Secretary of State whether she agrees that the responsibility for the violence and disorder lies with the perpetrators rather than the lawful authority of the Parades Commission? Does she further agree that the violence stems from anger, and that that anger stems from rhetoric used by certain members of the loyal orders and certain members of the Unionist parties? Will she, along with me, urge them to desist from making such comments, so that a shared society can be built throughout Northern Ireland?

I agree that the people responsible for the violence are the perpetrators: the people chucking petrol bombs and attacking the police in this disgraceful way. It is important that, in the coming days, all of us who care about Northern Ireland seek to calm the situation and that a lead be given by the Orange Order. Northern Ireland’s political leadership has made it clear that it wants the situation calmed and that it condemns the violence, so I hope that the people on the streets will heed that call and realise that the violence is hugely damaging to Northern Ireland and does not support any cause. It is time for the debate about parades to come off the streets and to be channelled into a political process.

Does the Secretary of State believe that the level of disorder and the number of injuries to police officers would have been greater had it not been for the effective deployment of water cannon? Given that hundreds of police officers from Great Britain have now seen how this equipment can be effectively deployed, will she share her assessment of its use with the Home Secretary, so that water cannon can be deployed in Great Britain to deal with future public order disturbances on the mainland?

I am inclined to agree that without the ability to deploy water cannon, there could have been more injuries to police officers. I am certainly happy to share with the Home Secretary the experience in Northern Ireland of deploying water cannon, if she would like me to do that.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning those engaged in violence, whether in seeking to breach a determination or in attacking lawful parades, thereby providing a further challenge to the rule of law and causing further damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation. I also extend my best wishes to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).

My primary concern is both for my constituents living in the areas affected—on the Newtonards road and in the Short Strand—whose lives are put at risk, who are terrified in their homes and whose neighbourhoods are left like war zones in the aftermath of these riots, and for the police who must protect the public and uphold the law in difficult circumstances. Does the Secretary of State agree that until such time as an agreement on an alternative to the Parades Commission is agreed by all parties in Northern Ireland, that body remains the lawful authority in these matters and that its rulings must be upheld—no ifs, no buts—if law and order is not to be undermined more generally?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The Parades Commission is the lawfully constituted authority; its determinations must be obeyed and the rule of law must be respected. Visiting her constituency, I saw the devastating impact that disorder had during the flags protest, and I know that the continuation of violence over recent days is deeply depressing for her constituents, not least for the businesses whose trade is disrupted.

While not condoning the violence over the weekend, does the Secretary of State not agree that there is a fear that the Parades Commission ruling placed the police in an impossible situation, having to police an unpoliceable order, and that with hindsight it might have been better to use the mechanism in place for exceptional circumstances to try to find a solution for the march that was acceptable to all sides?

As I said in my statement, the PSNI was confident at all times that it could police whatever determination the Parades Commission made, and in those circumstances it was not appropriate and my powers to intervene were not triggered.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and other hon. Members for their best wishes, which I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).

The Secretary of State has indicated the reprehensible nature of the violence and the attacks on police and property, which we all condemn outright and without reservation. She must now ensure that comprehensive discussions take place immediately—not next May or June, but immediately—to resolve all outstanding parades involving protests and violence. She also needs to engage with the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to ensure that marginalised and embittered communities see more investment and jobs in their areas so that they do not get caught up in violence.

I agree that comprehensive discussions are needed on issues such as parading, which is why I welcomed the establishment of the Haass group. As I said, I am happy to help in whatever way I can, and yes I am working closely with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on the kind of economic measures needed to boost the economy in Northern Ireland, including through our economic package, which I hope will help the people in those deprived communities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it makes it more difficult for law enforcement agencies if parade routes are changed at short notice? We need the maximum possible notice.

Certainly, for those organising big events, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, advance planning is crucial to keeping people safe.

The Secretary of State has made several references to the all-party talks under Richard Haass looking into a range of contentious issues, including parading. Will she take this opportunity to emphasise the importance of all those involved, including the Orange Order, engaging in a serious search for solutions, not simply blocking proposals, as happened after the Hillsborough Castle agreement?

Yes, I will. It is important that the loyal orders, including the Orange Order and the Royal Black Institution, engage. As well as the Richard Haass process, the Cardiff process is continuing, following on from the conference sponsored by the Northern Ireland Office, as a way to try and defuse tensions and reduce the risk of violence occurring at individual parades.

It is worth remembering, and respecting the fact, that in the main Orangemen and women do not come out to annoy Catholics and that the majority of parades over the weekend, including the one that I observed, passed without incident. It is clear, however, that parades remain the rawest of issues and that the scenes in Belfast were an utter disgrace. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that about 1,000 officers from England, Wales and Scotland were involved over the weekend. Can she confirm that the same number, and more, remain available to assist if trouble flares up again in the coming days?

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that conversations about our mutual aid presence in Northern Ireland are continuing, and the Chief Constable is confident that he can secure the mutual aid resources he will need over the coming days.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement, which I regret she had to make, and commend the comments from the shadow Secretary of State.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if there is rent-a-rant leadership, people cannot escape responsibility for rent-a-mob violence? She referred, rightly, to the positive example on Friday of the Orange Order having its parade in the city of Derry, where it was accepted and respected, but does she understand that the dialogue model used there did not deliver immediately but took purpose and patience? Wider civic and commercial interests were able—and often required—to weigh in to ensure a wider perspective. Will she encourage the Haass dialogue to provide a channel for those wider civic and commercial interests as well?

I am happy to do that. The business community made it clear that it wanted a peaceful 12 July weekend. I continue to encourage the business community to engage on these matters for the same reasons that the hon. Gentleman outlines: because they played such a positive role in Derry/Londonderry. I also agree that a sustainable local solution will not be found in just a few days, but will require further work. I hope that the Orange Order and the residents will continue the conversation they started; at the time, both sides said it was positive.

I join other right hon. and hon. Members in condemning the violence. The Secretary of State mentioned community engagement. She will know that in my constituency the Orange Order stages a weekly protest—and has done for 13 years —because the residents of the Garvaghy road will not engage on trying to resolve the issue. Community engagement is one of the big problems; that cannot be allowed to continue.

It is important for both sides to engage, certainly in relation to the Ardoyne. I hope that the resident group and the loyal orders will be willing to continue the conversation.

The Secretary of State will know that last year the Parades Commission allowed the Orange Lodges to return through the Ardoyne in buses, but that they were attacked and shots were fired. No statement was made in the House and the genuine perception was that the violence was rewarded, because this year the Orange Lodges were not allowed to follow the same route. Does she share my concern about the make-up and working of the Parades Commission? Is it not time to face reality—it is not working? There must be a different way of doing this; certainly, the Parades Commission is not the answer.

As I have said, I am aware of the concern felt about the determination, but it has the force of law. Determinations have to be respected, regardless of people’s view of the Parades Commission and the way decisions are taken. However, I am also clear that I am open to reform of the way those decisions are taken if local consensus can be achieved. I look forward to working with the Executive on those matters when the Haass group starts its work.

In many ways, it was appropriate that the conference was held in Cardiff, given that anyone who has visited Belfast and Cardiff will know the similarities, in terms of maritime history, architecture and the friendly nature of all the people in both cities. Will the Secretary of State recommit to the statement that came out of the conference, which said:

“We commit to resolve our differences through dialogue and non-violent means, underpinned by the principles of equality, inclusiveness, respect for difference, and non-discrimination”?

Yes, I am entirely happy to associate myself with that statement, and I hope that we hear that message coming out clearly from across Northern Ireland’s political and civic leadership over the coming days.