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Northern Ireland

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2013


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning this shameful violence and in expressing our profound sympathy and support for the police officers who have been injured. It is also a matter of the gravest concern that the right honourable Member for Belfast North 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.

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 and a pipe bomb from Brompton Park in the Ardoyne. Water cannon and AEP 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 no justification, or excuse, for the 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 honourable Member for Belfast North found himself the victim of this violence, too.

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 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 what we can to defuse tensions and calm the situation. We need temperate language over the coming days, and 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. Its officers have demonstrated fortitude, determination and courage in defending the rule of law. They have put their own safety on the line in the face of violent attacks and 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 in, for example, 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 that it is vital that local dialogue continues. I also welcome 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 on parading if one can be found but, in the mean time, 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. They are set out in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. Section 9 states that the Secretary of State can only review a determination made by the Parades Commission following a request by the chief constable. The reason why he has not made such a request is because at all times he has been confident that the officers under his command can police the situation, and I fully share that confidence.

So 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 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 in the sunshine following the parades, but locked up in prison living with the consequences of the crimes that they have committed”.

My Lords, I commend this Statement to the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the House of Commons. I assure her of the full support of the Opposition Front Bench for the position outlined. I will now repeat the statement by my honourable friend Vernon Coaker, the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

“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. It was very much appreciated and in the best traditions of bipartisanship.

I welcome her Statement. It is right that this House has the opportunity to discuss these important matters. I unequivocally condemn the violence that has taken place in Belfast over the last number of days and nights. There is no justification for it. The disgraceful attacks on the police have resulted in dozens of injuries, and a very deliberate attempt to murder officers by throwing blast bombs at them last night was shameful.

I pay tribute to the PSNI and colleagues from other UK forces for their bravery and determination in upholding the law. Can the Minister update us on the status of injured officers? Are any still receiving treatment? How many have returned to duty? How many are PSNI officers and how many are from other forces? How many mutual aid officers are still undertaking duties in Northern Ireland, and how long is that expected to continue?

We know that policing these large-scale public order incidents is costly. Does the Secretary of State have an estimate of how much the policing operations have cost to date? Who will meet this cost? Will it be her department, the Department of Justice or a combination of the two? There is always a concern about the involvement of paramilitaries in or on the margins of contentious parades and protests. Has she looked at who is involved and who is being arrested? Is there any indication that loyalist paramilitaries or dissident republicans have organised, or taken part in, the violence?

The origins of the appalling scenes we have witnessed lie in the dispute around parading. We have been here before. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that meaningful dialogue and working towards local agreement is the key to finding a solution? It has worked well in other places. The Orange Order held a peaceful, enjoyable and colourful celebration on the 12th in the UK City of Culture, Derry-Londonderry. It was a huge success, attended by thousands of people, and was able to happen because of years of dialogue and communication between neighbours in an atmosphere of 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 she has an important role to play in having further discussions over the coming days and weeks in north and east Belfast? As well as condemning the violence that has taken place, we need to work to ensure that it ends and does not recur in the future.

My view is that the British and Irish Governments still have a hugely significant role to play in helping to resolve all these issues. They should both be involved in the talks convened by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which are being facilitated by Richard Haass. Does the Minister agree? Will she confirm that the Northern Ireland Office is working with the OFMDFM on this? It is crucial to bring people together to look at what needs to happen now to prevent a repeat of what happened over the weekend, when a disagreement that was not addressed led to significant tensions between communities and ended in unacceptable violence. That is the main message I wish to send out today. I encourage all those working to find a solution to these matters to keep going and not give up, and to keep talking. I say to those involved in parading and protesting—unionist and nationalist—that respecting the law, your neighbour and the wishes of people right across a community to live in peace is the only way forward. It has been done and can be done”.

I thank the noble Lord for his comments, and particularly welcome his condemnation of the violence and the stress he laid on the importance of respect in the situation in which Northern Ireland finds itself. I also thank him for his support for those so closely involved in controlling the violence. They have had a very difficult job in the past few days.

The noble Lord asked a number of questions. Seventy-one police have been injured and we believe that six have been hospitalised, of whom two were police serving under the mutual aid scheme. There were more than 1,000 mutual aid officers in Northern Ireland at the weekend and yesterday.

The noble Lord asked about the cost of the problem and who bears it. This is where the real tragedy lies financially, because the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland bears that cost. That puts even greater stress and pressure on the police budget. The economic implications are very serious because of the impact it has on Northern Ireland, but it has immediately a massive financial impact on the Department of Justice.

The noble Lord asked about paramilitary involvement. That is something that will be very carefully investigated. He also asked about the Secretary of State’s discussions. She has had a whole range of conversations and meetings, both prior to and over the weekend. She was, of course, in Northern Ireland throughout this period. She is very supportive of the work that will be done by Richard Haass and the work that is being done by the Executive, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, to bring a more peaceful situation back into play.

My Lords, before the clerk starts the Clock, in the interests of all noble Lords with an interest in this matter, may I remind the House that the Companion guides us that all Statements are an opportunity for brief questions only?

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for repeating this Statement. I am happy to endorse her condemnation of shameful violence and to express sympathy. But can we also do some encouraging? There is still one gap from the Belfast agreement which was toyed with for a period and then put aside. That is the engagement of a civic forum, so that there can be genuine discussion with so many people about the shared future that Northern Ireland needs.

I have one further point and a question. It is one thing having these anniversaries and annual events—we worry about what is going to happen on the 12th—but we are moving to a period when we are going to be celebrating centenaries. These centenaries will be coming up very shortly. They are opportunities to celebrate, but some might see them as opportunities to be violent. Will my noble friend confirm that there are real plans and thought-through initiatives with this Government and the Government of Ireland and the devolved Assembly, to see that when the centenaries are celebrated, they really are celebrated and do not provide a further opportunity for violence?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. In relation to his comments about a civic forum, the situation in Northern Ireland is such that this process is worth reconsidering. In view of the recent A Shared Future document, issued by the Executive, and the recent Cardiff conference, which addressed issues of concern from the past and dealt with facing the decade of anniversaries and centenaries to which the noble Lord referred, this is an interesting concept which I am sure will be raised again and again. It would obviously help to engage a wider spectrum of the community in dealing with these problems. I have used his name already, but Richard Haass has, of course, the issue of the anniversaries that are coming up within his remit of reviewing of the past and how it should be dealt with. It will undoubtedly be something which is of interest to him in his work.

My Lords, the riots must of course be condemned without any reservation whatever. However, it is important to analyse their cause, is it not? Unless we understand the cause, we will never get the solution. Can the noble Baroness confirm that many Members of our House approached her last week to warn her that there could well be violence as a result of the determination made by the Northern Ireland Parades Commission? The violence was predictable and predicted. Can she confirm that the chief constable concluded that he could not police the decision of the Parades Commission: that the PSNI would be incapable of doing so? As a result, 16% of police officers on the streets of Northern Ireland are now from England, Wales and Scotland. That is the kind of situation that the Parades Commission has led us into in Northern Ireland. Would it not be better if we had a Parades Commission that had widespread consent in Northern Ireland and attracted support? At the moment, it does not. Would it not be better to have an independent chairman of the commission who is not tainted by party politics, has not been involved in an elected position against unionism but is totally impartial and independent?

The noble Lord referred to an informal meeting held last week. It is indeed the case that the Parades Commission’s determination was discussed at that meeting and a number of views were put. I have to say to the noble Lord that the chief constable was confident that he could police the parades but felt that it was important to have additional support under the mutual aid scheme. It is indeed the purpose of that scheme that events such as this should be dealt with in that way. The noble Lord referred to the status of the Parades Commission. It is of course a lawfully constituted authority that is independent of government. Its determinations must be obeyed. It is not a devolved authority and was set up by an Act of Parliament. It is essential that its determinations are duly obeyed on all sides in Northern Ireland. It is important to note also that the decisions of the PSNI, the chief constable and the Parades Commission, and the way in which they acted, were based on the experience of previous years and the problems that had previously been experienced at this time of year.

My Lords, many of us will feel utterly dismayed, saddened and angry at the events in Belfast when, yet again, the PSNI bravely had to bear the burden of this violence unleashed at it. Does the Minister agree that one of the tragedies is that there seems to be very little political leadership for the loyalist community? There was such leadership at the time of the Good Friday agreement, and it gave the loyalist community a sense that they had a stake in what was happening. I ask the Minister and her colleague the Secretary of State to engage in discussions with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and David Ford to examine what the problems are in parts of Belfast where members of the loyalist community seem to have the sense that there is nothing for them in the peace process. They are then too easily persuaded that the only way out is violence against the police. Real problems need to be addressed in the loyalist community in terms of lack of jobs and hope for the future. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State take an initiative with the people in Northern Ireland to deal with that?

The noble Lord makes some extremely important points, and there is the issue of there having been a process of change in loyalist politics and its leadership—but that is now devolved in large part, and the leadership in the Assembly has to develop from within and cannot be dictated from outside. I agree with the noble Lord about the significance of poverty among many in the loyalist communities in Belfast. It is therefore all the more important that Northern Ireland makes the most of the economic package which was agreed recently between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Executive, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That economic package had a specific purpose of reinvigorating the economy in the poorest parts of Belfast.

Is it not the case that violence begets violence? The Parades Commission gave in to the violence of the republican community against these parades. Now, of course, they are faced with the violence of the unionist community against the surrender to the republicans’ violence. How do you break out of that?

The Parades Commission makes its decisions based on the evidence before it and according to the protocols it follows. As I have said, the Parades Commission is independent, it is at arm’s length from Government and it is the duly constituted authority undertaking an extraordinarily difficult, problematic task. It has to deal with that to the best of its understanding. I hope that noble Lords will accept that the work of the Parades Commission is very difficult indeed. I thank the noble Lord for his question.

My Lords, I, too, join in condemning the widespread violence, and in expressing my sympathy and support for the police officers of Northern Ireland. I should like to pay tribute to the valiant work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland over recent days and weeks. Its officers have shown their professionalism and personal courage in defending the rule of law and protecting society. I come from a police family. I have many relatives who served in the RUC. I personally served as a special constable for many years, and today, I have a son and daughter-in-law who stood on the streets of Belfast hour after hour over the past few days. So let us also recognise the support and the encouragement these officers receive from their families at home, wondering night by night in what condition their loved ones will return.

Since assuming office, the Secretary of State has been less than visible. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made a very interesting contribution. Can the Minister emphasise to the Secretary of State how crucial it is that she engage with, and be seen to engage with, the authorities in Northern Ireland to help alleviate the social, economic and cultural problems which contribute to the volatile situation in unionist working class areas?

I thank the noble Lord for his moving tribute to the police. That tribute to their bravery, from first-hand experience, is very significant and says far more than anything that I could say standing here today.

The noble Lord referred to the significance of the leadership provided by the Secretary of State. It is important to remember that many of the levers that used to be within the hands of the Secretary of State no longer are, as policing and justice are devolved. However, the Secretary of State retains the ability to intervene if, following the determination of the Parades Commission, the chief constable of the PSNI had believed that he could not cope with the situation. However, he never felt that.

Perhaps I may make a very important point. The Secretary of State had the Justice Minister, the PSNI and the Parades Commission around the table for discussions prior to 12 July. Those were significant discussions and very important leadership was shown. The Secretary of State was there throughout the weekend and she is there on a very regular basis. There is no question of her lacking active engagement in this issue.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the widespread community support for the Parades Commission and of the fact that there are now very few contentious parades that remain to be resolved? The situation in respect of those contentious parades can be resolved only by discussion. Is she also aware of the extent of the work that was done, for example, in Derry to achieve the level of harmony which existed on 12 July this year?

The noble Baroness makes a really important point—that is, to refer us to the past and indirectly to point out the terrible situation that existed prior to the existence of the Parades Commission. It is important to bear in mind that there are many hundreds—thousands—of parades at this time of year in Northern Ireland. The city of Derry/Londonderry, for example, has done a superb job in making sure that its parades are successful and enjoyable and that they do not cause trouble. I had an extremely interesting meeting with the mayor of Derry/Londonderry, in which he pointed out the very simple and straightforward ways in which the sting has been taken out of the situation in that important city. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness when she says that the Parades Commission has widespread support. The vast majority of the public in Northern Ireland are not interested in a return to the problems of the past.

My Lords, Griffith observed that Irish history was trapped between the dead past and the prophetic future. Is this not a particularly tragic and all-too-familiar example of it? This is exploiting a battle that happened well over 300 years ago for sectarian provocative purposes. It seems to me that the problems lie far deeper than simply the social and economic circumstances of Northern Ireland. Could there not be a totally different way of celebrating the cultural and historic traditions of unionism? By definition, these events are going to be violent and produce casualties. We know that they are—it happens every year. They are as much a part of the calendar of our country as, let us say, Remembrance Sunday, and they have equally sad connotations. Is there not some peaceful historic or cultural way of celebrating unionism rather than these provocative battles? If not then frankly it is not worth celebrating.

The noble Lord, coming from the same part of the world as I do, is well aware of the importance of history to us all. It is of course extremely sad when history becomes so embroiled in violence. I say to him that it is important that as the years go by the people of Northern Ireland are able to embrace the future, and to let go of the past while not ignoring or neglecting it. They should be able to celebrate it in a positive way. I point to the importance of the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture in that transition process, because it does not shy away from the traditions and problems of the past. It embraces them and makes them part of a cultural experience.

I join the Minister in condemning unreservedly the recent street violence in Belfast, and in paying tribute to the bravery and strength of the police men and women from all parts of the United Kingdom who formed the front line in protecting the rule of law. However, does the Minister agree with me that the remit of the proposed all-party talks, under the chairmanship of Richard Haass, should include consideration of a change in the law to make the default position an unrestricted right to parade peacefully anywhere in Northern Ireland, unfettered by the arbitrary edicts of an unelected quango? Surely this is the only acceptable legal model for the mature and tolerant society which we are all trying to create in Northern Ireland.

I join the noble Lord in the hope that in future years it will be possible to hold parades that are entirely peaceful. Unfortunately, the events of this year have made his hopes even further off than they were before.