Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 418 - 419)




  418. First Minister, whenever we take evidence here we forget we have these machines, we shall gradually remember again. First Minister, it is extremely good of you to put in your memorandum and also to have consented to enable us to take evidence from you. We will endeavour to make the questions follow a logical order, but they may come from different corners of the room. You should feel totally free, as is the pattern with all select committees, to gloss any answer you give, either here orally or in writing afterwards, and we will retain the right to put supplementary questions to you in writing after the event. Is there anything you would like to say before we embark?

  (Mr Trimble) Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought you would want me to make an introductory statement, however if you want to go straight into questions—

  419. We welcome that.
  (Mr Trimble) First of all, may I observe it is the first time I have ever given evidence to a select committee or a Northern Ireland Assembly committee, they have not tracked me down yet, no doubt that will come. With regard to the legislation on the parades and the existence of parades, right from the time when the legislation was going through the House until recently, since then, in terms of my experiences of dealing with the Parades Commission I did meet them once or twice in a general party capacity to deal with the issue generally. Most of my contacts with them have been specifically with regard to the Drumcree issue. That has actually been, I would suggest, the most difficult issue that we have in terms of parades and the most difficult issue the Commission has had to deal with. Members will recall that after the legislation was enacted or after the report on parades the previous government formed the Commission to operate on a non-statutory basis, so that in 1997 the decision actually lay with the police and, to some extent, with the NIO. Once the legislation came into effect that transferred responsibility to the Parades Commission to take decisions with regard to parades. The first Drumcree parade was the one in 1998. Obviously the summer of 1998 was an extremely difficult one, coming immediately after agreement on the referendum, which complicated the issue significantly. My only involvement directly in that issue at that time was shortly before Drumcree Sunday when the Government relayed a message to me, a message which I understood to come from the leader of Sinn Féin. It was said to me that it would be very helpful if I could get some people to go up to the Garvaghy Road and speak to the Residents Association. Believing that might have an effect I did encourage a couple of our party members in Portadown to do just that. Unfortunately, like a number of other initiatives it was barren. Whether it was from the leader of Sinn Féin or the Government I am not in a position to say, but it was somewhat misleading. Subsequent to that, in July 1998, there was an attempted mediation lead by the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff. My own involvement in that is that I asked David, here, who is on my staff as a special adviser, to go and observe the proceedings and to provide liaison with the officers in Portadown District Orange Lodge. Then in the winter/spring of 1998-1999 I started off, first, with a series of meetings with the officers of Portadown District Lodge, from the point of view of trying to encourage the Lodge to move to a position where it would obtain some greater degree of public sympathy in Northern Ireland and aimed at a constructive, peaceful protest rather than the situation we experienced before that. Then in the spring of 1999 to try and develop an initiative I started off by inviting all of the elected representatives geographically of the Portadown area, councillors, assembly members, myself, I asked them to come together to discuss the issue and use that device in the local government elections. Two independents have been returned to Craigavon Council for the Portadown area, this includes Mr Breandan MacCionnaith, who was then chief spokesman of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition. This was essentially a decision to bring Mr MacCionnaith into some sort of process and discussion. Under the cover of these meetings of all the elected representatives I did have some direct personal conversations with Mr MacCionnaith and I asked him whether he would be prepared to be involved in a serious effort to resolve the issue involving direct discussions. He said that he would. He did speak to me twice, on these occasions a third meeting was promised but did not materialise. In the course of doing this I kept the Chairman and the Secretary of the Parades Commission fully informed of all of this activity. I was hoping that these would be taken into account by the Commission. The culmination of this came in the summer of 1999 when as a result of these and other meetings we had a more formal process, which took place at Stormont House. Again the Prime Minister sent his Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell to engage in that mediation. We persuaded Portadown District to appoint representatives to engage in direct discussions with the Residents Association. The District agreed to do this and appointed a team of four political and legal representatives, the political representatives being myself, Mr David McNarry, David Campbell, and Richard Monteith being their legal representative. That team engaged in direct talks in Stormont House on 27th June with the representatives of Garvaghy Road Resident's Coalition. The discussions lasted over several hours. They were intensive. Towards the evening, the residents asked for an adjournment and the meeting never continued. The significant thing about the discussions on that date was that that day was the last day before which the Parades Commission had to issue a determination for the Drumcree service. I would have liked the discussion to be earlier, but it was not possible for us to do that before that day. In my view the Garvaghy Road Resident's Association were prevaricating and not engaging, believing that the Parades Commission would rule in their favour. We asked the Parades Commission to postpone a decision until they could hear the outcome of these discussions but unfortunately it was not until very late at night I was able to go down and give evidence to the Parades Commission. After that Jonathan Powell also spoke directly to them and asked for a further delay in the issue of determination in the hope that further talks would prove productive. Unfortunately they did not delay. The Parades Commission did delay for 24 hours but the residents refused to re-engage. Then they made a determination which supported the residents. I have to say, Chairman, I am accustomed to dealing with hostile meetings, and sometimes when you encounter hostility it is not a matter of what people say, but it is very much a matter of body language and attitude, but I have very rarely met such sustained hostility as I did at that meeting. This was not unusual. The reason why I went through that was simply to say that we have a situation here where efforts have been made to mediate, where the Commission's informal decision talks about the desirability of engagement and mediation, but even when engagement occurred the Commission backed the position of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition. It was that that led me it observe, as I did at that time, that I did not think that the Portadown District would ever get a fair hearing from the Commission. After that engagement in 1999 the Prime Minister did encourage Northern Ireland and held talks but he was unable to reach an agreement. He did encourage the Portadown District to carry out their annual church service and parade in a peaceful manner. No credit was given for this by the Parades Commission. I maintained contact with the District and when in the autumn the talks representing both sides began it was basically the same team, Richard Monteith, David McNarry and David Campbell. I, myself, was absent on that occasion. They engaged in a further mediation effort. We asked the Parades Commission to send independent observers to witness the talks and they did so, but the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition refused them access to the meeting. A record of the meeting was maintained and forwarded to the Chairman of the Commission. However, after a number of sessions the Residents then found fault with the Chairman and broke off the talks. Again, the Parades Commission ignored the behaviour of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition and simply used it as the usual determination against the Portadown District. While the genuine efforts of the Portadown District were not recognised by the Commission they were recognised by the wider public and the Government. Following representations it did conduct a review of the workings of the Parade Commission. This review was completed towards the end of 1999 and it did result in the recruitment of a new Commission in February 2000. I do not think that review was as effective as it could have been. It was done by the same team of civil servants who had been working with the Parades Commission since its inception. The terms of the review were drawn far too narrowly, it was in the context of existing legislation, whereas the view that I expressed very strongly to government then, and since, was that that legislation itself was defective and ought to be amended. In particular we were trying to persuade the Government to amend the legislation to incorporate elements of the European Convention of Human Rights; that Convention had been completely ignored by the Commission. We have maintained contact with the new Commission and with the District. Unfortunately the new Commission has not really worked, where it has tried, I think, to present itself in a more open manner to myself and to others it has continued to arrive at the same decision as its predecessors. We maintained regular contact with the Chairman. I meet the Commission fairly regularly and also Mr Brian Currin, who has been engaged in trying to mediate a settlement. Mr Currin is not acting on behalf of the Commission or anyone in this respect. While there is some indication from the Commission that they wish to try and present themselves in a more open-minded manner the actual decisions have not changed and, in effect, by their position they continue to maintain the veto that the Garvaghy Road residents have, which is something which flies against my understanding of our obligations under the European Convention. I am not aware of that being brought into their thinking.

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