Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



Mr Barnes

  300. The Parades Commission has operated in a period of considerable Government activity in stabilising the peace process. To what extent has the Government maintained contact with the Commission to seek to ensure that it took full account of the Government's priorities in this area?
  (Mr Watkins) Ministers, and indeed senior officials, would have contact with the Parades Commission from time to time. Clearly, for a body which is established by Government under the legislation, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of State, and which fulfils a prominent public role, it is right that we have, from time to time, and Ministers have from time to time, discussions, particularly with the Chairman and the Secretary to the Commission. And those discussions would deal with and range from logistical matters, staffing and finance, through to how the new members of the Commission are settling in, is it bedding in in a way which is helpful to the execution of its responsibilities, right down to the matter of the general policies of the Commission. If the Chairman requested it, we would offer him an assessment of the Government's priorities, but I emphasis that it is a matter at the discretion of the Chairman to invite the Government to provide that, it is not something that we would be volunteering or bombarding him with, insisting that he hears the Government's view on wider political developments, or its wider analysis; if he asked for such, and he has done on one occasion, we would provide that.

  301. But they have not pursued the question further from the other side; a bit like interviews on TV, when you are asked from one point of view, they then ask you from the opposite perspective, and that was rather like asking, should not the Government be doing things in order to link in with the peace process, as far as the Parades Commission is concerned. But a criticism that has frequently been made in evidence to the Committee is that the Commission's decisions show inconsistency, and one witness suggested that its decisions are influenced by the political considerations of the British Government. What is your response to this latter claim, and do you detect any inconsistency in the Commission's decisions, either from Government influence or otherwise?
  (Mr Watkins) I myself am not immediately struck by any sense of inconsistency, and I would respectfully suggest it is for the Commission, because it is an independent body and because the law requires it to take its decisions independently, I think it is, if I may say so, for the Commission to account for the consistency of those decisions. I am confident that, I know that, Ministers attach a great deal of importance to the independence of the Commission, when it comes to making decisions on parades, and I do not myself believe that any inconsistencies that may have been perceived arise from such interference. Certainly over the period for which I have been responsible for the policy that has not been the case; it has not been the case.

  302. Except the Government are seen as trying to reconcile incompatible forces; so what they do is maybe they move on some occasions, in order to make a compromise in one direction, and move on another occasion to make a compromise elsewhere. So, if that is right, would this not be reflected maybe in its attitude towards some of the work on the Commission, on parades, so that we let that parade go, in a sense, because that satisfies the Unionist interest, and then we stop another one because it seems to be giving too much in that area, and now there needs to be a concession to the Nationalists?
  (Mr Watkins) The Parades Commission undoubtedly takes into account wider issues relating to Northern Ireland society and to the state of politics, and I think it is legitimate, under Section 8 of the Act that they should do so, because one of the factors they have to consider is the effect on the community, and the community is defined, and this has been upheld by the courts, as the community at large, not just local communities. But, insofar as the Commission does that, that is a direct responsibility and a direct decision of the Commission, it is not responding to any particular advice or propositions offered to it by the Government, that is not the case.

Mr Clarke

  303. I want to return to comments and questions in respect of mediation, and you mentioned, earlier on, that the Parades Commission had attempted to heighten awareness of mediation and different forms of mediation. I wondered if the Government has taken a view, or has sought to encourage mediation itself, outside of the scope of the Parades Commission?
  (Mr Watkins) The Act empowers the Parades Commission to promote and facilitate mediation, as well as making adjudications. That means that the Parades Commission does not directly, as members of the Commission, or staff of the Commission, involve itself in mediation, but it does at an arm's length and through third parties, if you wish, articulate, foster, mediation attempts, either through its own, the Mediation Network's Authorised Officers, whether through the police, whether through local business leaders, community leaders, or, indeed, through the Government. Now the Government has sought to encourage the Commission to promote and facilitate as much mediation as possible. On the major controversial march, the Government has itself become engaged in that mediative process; an attempt, on a number of occasions, under the current legislation, through the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister himself has had a number of meetings. We promoted an initiative by the Director of ACAS Scotland, called Frank Blair, to act as a mediator in Drumcree, and Adam Ingram, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, has himself led a round of mediative negotiations, in the autumn of 1999. I am not implying that the Government was acting at the behest or under the instructions of the Parades Commission, but what I am trying to say is, the Government has sought to play its part in the mediative effort where it believes that it has something to offer, and that is in relation to Drumcree.

  304. Do you feel, therefore, there could be a risk of the Government almost sending out a mixed message, in terms of, in some cases, taking on a more proactive role in mediation, and in others trying to make that mediation the responsibility of others outside of itself and outside the Parades Commission? Can you understand what I am saying? Is there not a risk that the steps taken to widen the mediation process could cut across the potential initiative of the Commission?
  (Mr Watkins) Yes. I do understand that risk, and I think that risk does exist. If, for example, the Government inserted itself as a mediator in more than perhaps the most controversial march at Drumcree, and if it did so in relation to Ormeau, Derry, Keady, Tour of the North, all sorts, then I think one would begin actually to get back to the sort of position we were in pre-1998, though, in that case, instead of the RUC being the mediator, it would actually be the Government. There is a risk of that. But, equally, I think Ministers have taken the view that, because of the scale of public disorder and disturbance associated with Drumcree in 1995, 1996 and 1998, it was a matter of such striking public concern that it ought to be directly involved, without supplanting the position of the Parades Commission, which, unfortunately, of course, has had to be invoked in its adjudicative role. But I would certainly share your anxiety if the Government's mediation were to be replicated across many communities in Northern Ireland, but I think that is highly unlikely.

  305. And I apologise for the length of the question, Mr Chairman, but just to take Drumcree as an example, when some members of this Committee visited Drumcree we did hear criticism from both sides that mediation did not include to as great an extent as it should do those within the local community, that it had been taken out of their hands and the decisions were being made at a national level and not at a local community level. Would that be fair criticism?
  (Mr Watkins) I think there is a genuine question over whether there is a better prospect of the problem being resolved if it is left to local influences rather than more prominent influences; that is a genuine question, which I know Ministers are concerned about. And it is one of the reasons, to come right up to date, if I may, why, after the Adam Ingram round, in the autumn and winter of 1999, the Government has, as it were, left it, and I do not mean in the abandoned sense but in a sort of delegated sense, to Brian Currin, as an independent mediator. And, in a sense, I think that is going towards what you are suggesting, that a local resolution is perhaps likely to be more successful than perhaps a more conspicuous one.

  306. Now I do apologise for going off at a tangent and asking a totally different question, but it is one that does concern me. In evidence given to the Committee by previous witnesses, it has been suggested to us that the process of reporting a parade, and/or a demonstration against a parade, being that notification has to be given to somebody of sergeant or above within the RUC, is in itself an obstacle to mediation and/or finding a way forward, or it makes it difficult, particularly in rural communities, where somebody may wish to give notice of a demonstration but there would not be a sergeant available. Is that something that you feel is resolvable, simply, or are there reasons why this rule of notification to a sergeant or above is there?
  (Mr Watkins) Clearly, the process of giving notice 28 days, at least, in advance for a march, or I think 14 days in advance for a protest against a march, is part of the structure and it is an inescapable part of the structure of a formal process being set in train. Indeed, I think it has become rather more important with the advent of the Human Rights Act, because it gives time for the Parades Commission to reach a determination five working days before the event in question, which then gives time for parties who would wish to take exception to the determination to test that in law. Other than reading the accounts of the evidence you have taken, I have to say, I am not aware that there is a problem over the fact that the notification has to be given to somebody of sergeant level in the police or higher in the police. If either the police or the Parades Commission were to bring representations that the process would work better if it were on some other, different basis, in other words it could be a constable rather than a sergeant, of course, I am quite sure the Government would consider that. But I have to say that neither the police nor, to the best of my knowledge, the Parades Commission have made those points to us. If I may say so, it was only on reading the evidence to this Committee that I was aware of that concern. If it is a widespread concern, I am sure Ministers would be prepared to consider it.


  307. Before I call Mr Robinson, let me ask just one supplementary myself to the questions which Mr Clarke has just asked. We understand that from April this year the Authorised Officers will come under the direct control of the Commission rather than the control of Mediation Network. Will this change the role of the Commission itself in relation to mediation?
  (Mr Watkins) I hope it will not. It is a decision that the Commission has quite deliberately taken, and it informed us of the decision in the autumn. The way in which the Commission operates is very much one that we would leave to the Commission; but I think Ministers would have grounds for becoming concerned if they felt that if that development were to bring, as it were, the Authorised Officers closer to the Commission, the perception might arise that the Commission itself was becoming directly involved in mediation, rather than doing it through third parties, at arm's length. If that perception arose, I think Ministers might want to look at that issue, but I think I would want to test out whether such a perception arose; if it did, I think it would be unfortunate and Ministers might want to think about ways of resolving it.

Mr Robinson

  308. In relation to Drumcree, did the Parades Commission at any time ask the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the Minister of State, or the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff to act in a mediation capacity?
  (Mr Watkins) No, they did not; they did not actually actively ask.

  309. When the Parades Commission was set up, I think you yourself indicated that effectively there were two principal roles that it had to discharge, one was the adjudication, the other being the promotion and facilitating of mediation. Can it therefore be implied that there is a criticism on the part of the Government of the way that the Parades Commission has handled the mediation role, when they decided, without being asked by the body that they set up specifically to promote and facilitate mediation, they decided to do it themselves?
  (Mr Watkins) I rather think not. Drumcree, in 1995, 1996 and 1998 was the scene of widespread disorder, and, indeed, that disorder was not, at least in 1996, confined to Drumcree. It was a matter of widespread concern across the community of Northern Ireland, and indeed more widely. I do not believe that the attempts of the Government to mediate a solution then meant that it no longer had any faith in, or should be taken as an implied criticism of, the Commission, it was simply a very large, very pressing issue, which the Government could not, I think, simply deal with at arm's length. There were also those, of course, who were very anxious that the Government should be involved, not least the Loyal Orders themselves, who were not, at that stage, and indeed are not still, prepared to work alongside the Commission itself. And in the absence of the Marching Orders working alongside the Commission, whereas they were prepared to work with the Government, Ministers decided that they had no alternative but for the Government to become involved directly.

  310. Come on, Mr Watkins. We have a situation where the Government sets up a body, specifically tasks it with the responsibility of promoting and facilitating mediation and then leaves it to the side and does it itself, and you tell us that is not a criticism?
  (Mr Watkins) Yes. The Commission's role, I would suggest, in that circumstance, would have been greatly facilitated if the Commission was in a position to do business directly with the Marching Orders, but by a decision of the Marching Orders that is not the case. And, secondly, I think, Ministers took the view that it would have been a dereliction of duty to allow what in previous years had been a source of widespread public disorder simply to go untreated, as it were.

  311. That is a very good reason why maybe they should not have given them that power in the first place. But, I wonder, could I ask you, what is the reporting system that takes place after Government Ministers have had contact with the various factions, if we can call them that, in relation to a parade?
  (Mr Watkins) The only factions that Government Ministers, or those acting on their behalf, are involved with is in relation to Drumcree. I am not aware of any other marches where the Government has been involved in any such effort. We have normally agreed with both sides, the residents and Portadown District, as to what might subsequently be said to the Parades Commission, and that, indeed, was part of, for example, Mr Ingram's round in the autumn of 1999, which devoted some effort to precisely what might be subsequently, after each meeting in that round, reported to the Parades Commission, and that has been the subject of agreement, was the subject of agreement, in that round, was implemented by agreement with both sides. So we have reported, in that instance, very regularly, we reported to the Parades Commission the progress of developments.

  312. Before you go on, I want to explore a point you are making. You are saying that any report that they get is agreed by the parties to the discussion?
  (Mr Watkins) That was my recollection of the case in the Ingram round, yes. If I may, I will refresh my memory, but that was my recollection of that round[5]. May I give you another instance?

  313. Just before you leave that one, the reason it interests me is that I would have assumed that part of the rationale behind a Parades Commission adjudication would have been the flexibility or willingness of the various parties to reach agreement in any mediation that takes place. If you had one party that was being deliberately awkward or obtuse in the matter then that might be a factor that the Parades Commission would take into consideration. But if it is required that there is an agreed account of the mediation given, well then we are never really going to get that message over to the Parades Commission, are we?
  (Mr Watkins) There was a very sustained attempt in what I call the Ingram round to do that, and I think it was at least partially successful. It is interesting that, flowing from the review of last year, the Parades Commission, in its Annual Report, last April, or whenever it was, actually did set out what they meant by engagement; and, indeed, Chairman, I referred to this earlier on. And among the definitions that they offered was that engagement should represent a real attempt to address legitimate concerns of others and preparedness to accommodate those concerns, the dialogue, or the engagement, needed to be sustained and genuine, not ticking boxes, and made the point that residents groups could not have a veto. Now they had to make a judgement, on the basis of the information that we provided them in the Ingram round, as to whether those criteria were met, and their judgement must have been that they were not sufficiently met. In terms of other reporting to the Commission, I do recall that, in July 1999, under the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, he and a number of us on the Government team were invited down to see the Commission, as part of their evidence-gathering process, in relation to Drumcree, in 1999, so that Jonathan Powell was formally asked to give oral evidence to the Commission as part of, as I said, its evidence-gathering process, and that was given, and other evidence doubtless was taken from residents and others. So there has been a reporting mechanism, so as to, as it were, properly give the Parades Commission its place as specified in legislation.

  314. Is the Government presently satisfied with the nature and extent of mediation being carried out by the Parades Commission?
  (Mr Watkins) It is. It is, save in the ideal sense, that I referred to earlier. The ideal outcome is if mediation resolved all problems, and no adjudications were necessary.

  315. I am not asking about the outcomes, the outcomes are beyond the Parades Commission, in many ways, but in terms of are they applying it to the right number of issues, in the right way, using the right people?
  (Mr Watkins) We believe so. This is inherently, if I may say so, very difficult to test, but I would suggest that, the figures that I have are provisional, for the period from last April to December, there were something like 2,200 Loyalist marches, and restrictions and conditions were imposed on 156, and indeed a third of those were related to Drumcree. Now that suggests to me that mediation is having the effect, the impact, that it is expected to have on the vast bulk of parades. So I think, on that sort of test, the Government would be broadly satisfied. But one of our recommendations was that more effort might go into this, so we would like to see further success there.

  316. Are there any plans on the part of the Government to be involved in any mediation in the future?
  (Mr Watkins) Not currently.

Mr Pound

  317. Thanks very much indeed, Mr Watkins, we are grateful for your evidence so far. Can I just ask you, I suppose you are the Government, as far as we are concerned, today, whether the Government believes—
  (Mr Watkins) That would be bit scary for the Government, if I may say so.

  318. I find it rather reassuring, to be perfectly honest; a comparison so invidious. The parades problem, is it a local issue or is it a generic issue, because we tend to refer to parades by their geographical location; in your opinion, is it local or generic?
  (Mr Watkins) I think it is both, if I may say so.

  319. An excellent answer.
  (Mr Watkins) There are clearly certain localities, and I know that ACC McQuillan, when he met you last week, referred to a number where there are particular local problems, and he specified a dozen or so; and, in that sense, it is local. In that sense, for example, Drumcree has perhaps a particular edge which might reflect wider community relations in that area; some argue along those lines. On the other hand, it is also a general issue, in this sense, that the issue of parading is often seen as a proxy, or a barometer, for the confidence of one community as against another, at any particular time, and can often reflect, indeed, the shifting relationships in wider politics. And, in that sense, it is a general issue as well. I am not sure whether that sheds much light on your question, but I think that is my best answer there.

5   See also Ev p 99. Back

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