Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 286 - 299)




  286. Mr Watkins, it is a pleasure to see yourself and your colleagues, and we have taken evidence from at least one of your colleagues, on a previous and almost totally unrelated subject; but a very warm welcome to you. As I think you will know, from other occasions on which the Northern Ireland Office has given evidence before us, we will endeavour to make sure that the questions follow a logical order, but they may come from different corners of the horseshoe. And you should feel totally at liberty to gloss any answer you give, either here or in writing afterwards, if there is some way in which you wish to add to it, or improve on it, and we, likewise, will feel free to ask supplementary questions in writing, if we spot, when we read the transcript, that there is some aspect about which we should have asked questions. In addition to introducing your colleagues, I do not know whether you would like to say a word or two at the beginning, in addition to what you have already sent us?

  (Mr Watkins) Thank you for your welcome, Mr Chairman. Perhaps, indeed, I might introduce Mrs Mary Madden, who is the Head of Security Policy and Operations Division, in the Northern Ireland Office, and Mr Ian Kerr, from the same Division. Perhaps, indeed, I might take up your offer to make a very brief statement, not least as it is some months since our memoranda were submitted to the Committee. The establishment of the Parades Commission flowed from the North Report and is provided for the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. The Government believes that the analysis of the North Report, essentially, that marches involve a balance of competing, qualified rights, continues to hold. In its view, the Commission plays a necessary role in both promoting and facilitating mediation and adjudicating on parades and the competing rights at issue where agreement has not otherwise been reached. The Government believes that experience of three years of the functioning of the Commission has tended to vindicate its view. In 1999, the Government decided that a short review of various aspects of parades would be appropriate; in the event, it decided not to proceed with what was regarded as the review's main recommendation, the early application of the Human Rights Act to parades. This was because a number of groups, notably the new Commission itself, was not in favour of this; in any case, of course, the Act has applied to parades, as to other matters, since its commencement on 2 October 2000, and, indeed, a case was taken late last year under the Human Rights Act against a determination by the Commission in relation to a march in Dunloy, but the application was dismissed. In the meantime, the 2000 marching season passed off relatively, and I underline relatively, successfully. There were, I believe, some signs of growing acceptance of rights on both sides and of the need for the Commission; but the fact remains that unacceptable violence, some of a very unpleasant nature, did occur, and, of course, Drumcree remains unresolved. The third memorandum that we submitted to the Committee, Mr Chairman, related to the appointment of a new Commission, in February 2000. After describing the process itself, we recorded in that memorandum that judicial review of the appointments had been sought. Perhaps I should note, for the Committee, that that application too was dismissed. Mr Chairman, I hope you and your colleagues on the Committee find those brief comments helpful.

  Chairman: I am grateful to you, Mr Watkins. I was going to lead off with a question about the application for judicial review of the appointments process and was going to ask you the outcome; you have anticipated me by what you said in your opening statement, for which we are grateful.

Mr Grogan

  287. Good afternoon. You referred, in your opening remarks, to the review and the announcement of that, which I think took place in October 1999, did it not, and that is a fairly short period from the Parades Commission being up and running in, I think it was, February 1998. Why was that review announced, and what were the factors that determined its scope?
  (Mr Watkins) Ministers concluded that after two marching seasons under the operation of the 1998 Act and two marching seasons under the new structures, i.e. with the Parades Commission, fully empowered as it was, and not least since there were to be new appointments to the Commission from February 2000, that the time was right to carry out what Ministers regarded as a fine-tuning, to see whether there were any adjustments that might be made to existing policy and the existing operation of the Commission. It is very important, if I may say so, that the terms of reference said that the review was to be carried out within the existing framework of law and structures. And that, I think, suggests that, indeed, in the Government's mind, it was a stock-take, it was an opportunity to fine-tune, with an emphasis on trying to extend the confidence that there was in the structures in the Parades Commission in the way it operated. And, secondly, to see if there were ways of promoting mediation, as well as what had seemed to become, in common perception, the primary role of the Commission, namely, to make adjudications.

  288. So why was no formal report of the review issued?
  (Mr Watkins) I think that was because Ministers saw it as taking stock, as an opportunity to fine-tune, rather than pulling up the plant by the roots, it was within the existing structures and law. And, indeed, if I recall, whenever the then Secretary of State announced it, on, I think, 8 October 1999, it was clear that officials would make recommendations to the Secretary of State, who would then make an announcement. So there was already an implication there, I think, that this was not going to be a formal published review, the conclusions of the review were to be announced, and that is what happened.

  289. Would it be possible for members of the Committee to see a copy of the report made to the Secretary of State?
  (Mr Watkins) The report was in the form of a submission from officials to the Secretary of State. May I consider, with Ministers, to whom the submission was made, what view they would take of that? I would wish to comply with the Committee, of course, insofar as Ministers would be content with that, but since it was a submission to the Secretary of State I would need his authority, if I may[3].

  Mr Grogan: Yes. Thank you.


  290. On what evidence did the review conclude that the Commission had achieved many of its objectives in encouraging local agreement where possible?
  (Mr Watkins) I think there was a view, which was imparted not least by the Commission itself, that, over the previous two seasons, 1998 and 1999, there had been a greater use of the `authorised officers' systems. Secondly, there was a view that the 1999 marching season passed off rather more easily than the previous, first year of the Commission's operations, in 1998, when I am sure the Committee will remember very clearly the scenes at Drumcree, in particular, at that time. And that suggested, I think, to the Commission and to the Government that there was a greater recognition of the fact that there are at issue here competing and qualified rights, and that the mechanism set up by the Act was in some ways working. There were particular instances where mediation had actually been successful, perhaps the most obvious of which, perhaps most recently, has been in Derry, and where there have been signs of that sort of greater readiness to compromise, which implied in itself a greater recognition that there were competing rights at issue.

  291. Let me take a slightly more pessimistic line of inquiry. If many of the objectives have been achieved, would you like to tell us about the objectives which were not?
  (Mr Watkins) The Commission itself, and indeed the former Chairman, was very fond of saying that when the Commission had to make adjudications that was borne out of failure. In a sense, the Government's objectives would be for the Commission not to have to make any adjudications whatsoever, because these issues would be dealt with locally by mediation and by local accommodation. The objective we would have is indeed that that should happen; but the fact is that, my recollection is, in fact, of the last nine months, there were 156 occasions when, in relation, I think, to Loyalist marches, restrictions or conditions had to be imposed, and that suggested that, indeed, the Government's ideal objective has not yet been achieved.

  292. Let me go back to what you said about the Human Rights Act and the decision not to implement it. You explained about the new Parades Commission and their feelings about it, I am not sure you gave us the reason why they took that view?
  (Mr Watkins) Why the Parades Commission took that view?

  293. Yes, the Parades Commission.
  (Mr Watkins) The Parades Commission, I think, took the view that it was actually simply too late, it was too close to the beginning of the marching season to have, as it were, a material change in the underlying rules, and I think that was the view that they took; the previous Commission, whom we had consulted in November 1999, had actually been quite distinctly in favour. The new Commission was still in favour of the analysis of the parades issue as a rights-based dispute, but it took the view that it was too close to the marching season to apply it at that point.

  294. And that became the prevailing determination?
  (Mr Watkins) It did. The fact that the main instrument of the Government's policy was not in favour of the Government's proposal clearly weighed very heavily with the Government. It is also the case that other bodies, like the Human Rights Commission, were not in favour of the proposition either, arguing instead that the Human Rights Act should apply across the board and not just to marching at the appointed commencement date of 2 October. And given that there was the Secretary of State's announcement early in the year that he would consult with the Parades Commission, the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission, the police, given that two of those, at least, of those main consultees, turned out against the proposition, weighed heavily with Ministers.

  295. And, obviously, as with all decisions, there is a downside as well as a justification. In balance-sheet terms, what would you say was the cost that has been sustained as a result of not carrying it forward?
  (Mr Watkins) One of our objectives, in the early application of the Human Rights Act, and perhaps, I might say, of all of the Human Rights Act, apart from one very minor technical sub-section, there was a suggestion at the time that it was to be selectively applied, that was never the case, it was always to be applied in total, apart from one very minor technical issue which had no bearing actually on the main question. Our view was that there was advantage in that, in that it would establish very early, and applying to the year 2000 marching season, a commonly understood level playing-field, which would encourage the community as a whole, the Loyal Orders, the residents groups, political parties, to continue to see the issue in its right terms, namely a matter of competition between competing rights. We wanted that, dare I say it, education process to kick in as early as possible, and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense, Chairman, to start as early as possible. The loss, therefore, was that we had had a marching season without the Human Rights Act actually applying. Having said that, the Parades Commission, like a lot of other public bodies, has anticipated, in the way in which it does its business, the application of the Human Rights Act, and it was careful therefore, throughout the 2000 marching season, as far as possible, to ensure that it was fulfilling a proper balance of rights, as required by the incoming legislation. So I think, actually, the negative side of the balance-sheet was really pretty limited.

  296. Has the Northern Ireland Office made an assessment of how effectively the Parades Commission has implemented the conclusions of the review?
  (Mr Watkins) Yes, we have. There were a number of recommendations. For example, we recommended that the Commission should take steps, in shorthand, to heighten the awareness of mediation, and we understand that they continue to consider issues like a guide to various forms of mediation, sort of a list of qualified mediators. We also proposed that the Parades Commission should develop an awareness amongst the public of its role and how it sets about its role. It has, since then, for example, developed its own website, and it is currently developing, we understand, an outreach and communications strategy, designed to change the common understanding of the role of the Commission away from simply a determination and an adjudicative mechanism to its wider role in promoting and facilitating mediation. We recommended that it should insert more details of its reasoning in its determinations; it has done that, and I think one can point to a number of determinations where that is the case. We suggested that the Commission might want to offer guidance in its 1999-2000 Annual Report on what it means by engagement, and it did that, on pages 15 and 16. It had a little essay, as it were, on what it understood by the term engagement, which had been the subject of some questioning before that. And, lastly, of course, there is the human rights issue, which was not a recommendation for the Commission but for the Government, and we have explored that.

  297. And that helpful resumé covered a number of things where the recommendation might be described as having been fulfilled in full, but one or two others where there are good intentions but it has not yet been accomplished. Are there deadlines in the latter case?
  (Mr Watkins) No, there are not. It would be an issue that we would discuss, from time to time, with the Chairman of the Commission, and we will be doing that again shortly. But these are recommendations to an independent Commission, which we believe it is for them to evaluate. They do not object in principle to any of the recommendations that affect themselves, but how they actually implement that is, I think, primarily a matter for them; that is not to say that if they did not do anything about it we would not be asking questions, but we would be asking them to justify why not, and why not more quickly.

  298. And any sense of omission on the part of the Government?
  (Mr Watkins) In relation to those recommendations which are the responsibility of the Parades Commission?

  299. Yes.
  (Mr Watkins) The Parades Commission is sponsored by the Northern Ireland Office, at the same time it is an independent body. We would certainly wish to see them implementing as soon as possible. I would regret, Ministers would regret, that the recommendations had not been implemented by the Commission as fully as they might like; and I will admit to a certain amount of regret and responsibility over that, yes[4].

  Chairman: Thank you so much.

3   See also Ev p 99. Back

4   See also Ev p 100. Back

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