Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Democratic Dialogue


  We write in response to your call for evidence "to examine the operation of the Parades Commission since its inception". Democratic Dialogue has been working on the parades issue since 1996. Dr Neil Jarman and Dr Dominic Bryan have managed the various pieces of work. Prior to working with Democratic Dialogue we ran a series of research projects with the Centre for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. Michael Hamilton is a research student at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown examining public order legislation in Northern Ireland. He has undertaken a study of how the Parades Commission has used the criteria in section 8(6) of the Public Procession (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 in their determinations. Dr Jarman and Dr Bryan have been conducting research into parades for over ten years and have a range of academic and policy publications on parades disputes some of which I enclose[1] in the hope that it provides the Committee with useful background material. Between us we have monitored hundreds of parades over the last ten years.

  We would like to place on record our assessment of the conditions the Parades Commission has worked in along with some brief comments with regard to the operation of the Commission.

  1.  The Parades Commission has had the legal powers to make determinations over disputed parades for two years. It is worth remembering that, for a range of reasons, parades and demonstrations have created public order difficulties in Ireland for the last two hundred years. Parades have taken place for a variety of reasons but within the context of ethnic differences in the north of Ireland they have always had a political character. We would refer you to three of our reports—Political Rituals: Loyalist Parades in Portadown, Parade and Protest: a Discussion of Parading Disputes in Northern Ireland and From Riots to Rights: Nationalist Parades in the North of Ireland—in which we have attempted to map the historical context within which parades have developed. In Parade and Protest (p144-145) we have looked at the recent increase in the numbers of parades within the Unionist community. In From Riots to Rights we have similarly looked at why there are significantly fewer parades within the Nationalist community. The present disputes must be seen within the context of inequalities of power between communities that are reflected in the parading "traditions". We also enclose* a background paper—"Regulating Rights and Managing Public Order: Parade Disputes and Peace Process, 1995-98"—looking at the development the present legal regime.

  2.  Policing public order within the context of ethnic conflict is very complex. Even within political systems where there is a high level of legitimacy given to the police and judiciary, such as the rest of the UK or the US, conflicts over rights to free assembly are not uncommon and are not easily resolved (witness recent events in Seattle and Washington). In Politics in Public: Freedom of Assembly and the Right to Protest we have reviewed public order approaches in other parts of the world in an attempt to draw out good practice. Some of our observations, such as the placing of constraints on free assembly (p126-128) and the use of stewards and monitors (p134-135), have been broadly taken up by the Parades Commission.

  3.  It had been the opinion of many commentators (see for instance the views of ex-Chief Constable Jack Hermon in his autobiography p171-172) that the behaviour of many loyal order parades had been unacceptable for sometime. Indeed, Mr Hermon suggested that there was a need for a Parades "Tribunal" as far back as 1985 (see The Belfast Telegraph 1 May 1986).

  4.  In approaching solutions to the parades disputes, which significantly worsened after 1995, we strongly favoured complex decisions (determinations) being removed from the control of the police. The events in Portadown in 1996 and 1997 made this a priority. In setting up the Parades Commission the authors of the North Report, to whom we made significant representations, concurred with our thinking. We believe that policing has significantly benefited from this change. Finding solutions to policing issues would have been even harder had the RUC had to make such decisions over the last two years.

  5.  The Parades Commission has had to work within very difficult conditions. In particular it has had to attempt to deal with an issue that had the potential to de-rail the peace process. The parading issue was certainly too difficult to be dealt with within the formal structures of the peace process. As such, it is possible to argue that the Parades Commission has contributed to attempts to find peace in Northern Ireland.

  6.  Within an unstable political context the Parades Commission has endured a barrage of hostile rhetoric which at times has gone so far as to suggest that the present situation was of the Parades Commission's own making. In considering the conduct of the Commission it is important to ask if there were any reasonable alternatives that might have created significantly improved conditions. The judicial system, with no history of developing a positive position on rights, would not have easily dealt with the problem. It may be that in the future, with the introduction of the ECHR into UK law, this might change.

  7.  As such, the political and legal conditions within which the Parades Commission has worked have made its job very difficult. In addition, it was asked to fulfil two potentially contradictory roles. On the one hand it was to encourage mediation, on the other, to make determinations. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee may like to consider how easy it is for the Commission to fulfil the roles of arbiter and mediator. We would suggest there are no easy answers.

  8.  The balance between those two roles has been managed by using the Mediation Network for Northern Ireland to broadly develop mediation through a network of "fieldworkers" known as Authorised Officers. We would commend to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the work of the Authorised Officers who, in very difficult conditions, have attempted to develop local accommodation and gather information with which to inform the Commission. Their task has been made very difficult by the attitude of the Orange Order to mediation and the role of the Commission. It is to the credit of the Authorised Officers that in spite of hostility they have gained the trust of people in many communities.

  9.  We would suggest that there is evidence that the work of the Parades Commission and the Authorised Officers has led to a general improvement in the environment surrounding parades in a number of areas. Determinations have been accepted in many areas, albeit sometimes grudgingly, and accommodations have been approached thanks to the skills of a range of mediators.

  10.  There are many determinations that the Parades Commission has made that people have disagreed with. Whilst in such difficult circumstances it is of course right to keep under review the workings of a body like the Parades Commission and it may be that changes could be made that improve its ability to fulfil its statutory role, we would suggest that there are no obvious solutions. It is worth asking, not whether the decisions were right or wrong, but rather whether the decisions were reasonable in the circumstances.

  11.  Portadown remains the most glaring problem. We would suggest that no system could have been developed that would have dealt with the serious community relations issues that exist in Portadown. What has taken place in Portadown is about much more than just one parade and solutions will need to be long-term and fundamental.

  12.  The Parades Commission has developed a Code of Conduct that appears to us to be reasonable. It might be useful for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to reiterate the importance of the Code being followed by all organisers of processions and protests.

  13.  We believe the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee should take note of projects to develop steward (marshal) training (with which we were closely involved) funded by the Parades Commission, successfully developed by the Apprentice Boys of Derry and commended in the Patten Report on policing (9.9, 9.10). The training scheme has now moved to a number of Further Education Colleges and should benefit all sections of the community.

  14.  We would also draw to the attention of the Committee our report on the monitoring of public order—Independent Intervention: Monitoring the Police, Parades and Public Order—which was funded by the Parades Commission and the Community Relations Council. Adequate monitoring of parades and protests particularly with reference to the Code of Conduct can help create a better environment for public expression. We also believe it offers ideas for communities to develop some of their own solutions to public order issues.

  15.  It is evident that the introduction of human rights laws into Northern Ireland might provide new solutions to the problems concerning rights to parade. As such, the Parades Commission might not need to remain in existence over the longer term. However, there are a range of rights that relate to freedom of assembly and privacy and conflict over these rights is still likely. Human rights legislation will not solve what are some fundamental community relations problems.

  We hope that some of these brief points and the enclosed reports aid the considerations of the Committee. We would be pleased to offer any more help that the Committee might feel we could provide.

19 April 2000

1   Evidence not reported. Back

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