Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 446)



  440. Given the fact that the police now have to make their decisions in accordance with the Human Rights legislation do you really think, given that situation, there is any need for a Commission? Could there be a conflict at times between the two decisions?
  (Mr Trimble) The Commission itself should be operating with due regard to the Human Rights Act and with due regard, I would hope, to the existing extensive body of jurisprudence under the European Convention; if it were doing so that would present a different approach. If that was happening, it would not be a problem. If you ask me what I would prefer to see, I would prefer to see a radically different structure.

  Chairman: I have one question I want to put to the First Minister before we conclude. Let me verify, does any other member of the Committee have any supplementaries they want to ask?

Mr Barnes

  441. In football it is often the person who retaliates who gets the red card, then the perpetrator might merely get a ticking off. Do you feel that the reaction by marchers to controls on Drumcree in particular have often been over the top as to why there is a red card attitude towards them?
  (Mr Trimble) Obviously there is an element of that in what happened in 1998. One of the tragedies of this issue is that it got embroiled with the general political ferment that existed here in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1998. That is something from my own feelings that I became conscious of and conscious of the extent to which some unsavoury elements were trying to exploit the issue for their own particular reasons. One recalls the much publicised visits of certain gentlemen to Drumcree last summer, where some elements were trying to exploit the issue. The District have done their best to distance themselves from that situation. However, they cannot prevent people trying to exploit the issue and this has made the issue much more difficult. I think your analogy with football is quite apt in this case.

  442. What do you feel now you can do in those sort of circumstances as First Minister in order to try and assist any protests about what you feel are unfortunate decisions, that are peaceful and confined within their time scale?
  (Mr Trimble) As I have done over the course of the last couple of years, right back to 1998, indeed in terms of earlier problems, I have done what I can to encourage people to keep the law and not to engage in violent retaliation, to try and find a peaceful way of resolving the issue. Unfortunately, even though I am First Minister when we have these issues I am a bystander on the matter with only a power to urge and try to persuade. It is not much consolation for me that the Secretary of State is in no better position.

Mr Clarke

  443. Just returning to Mr Thompson's questions, when he mentioned the Human Rights Act, I think it has also been mentioned, if not by yourself but by many others, that many of the decisions that the Commission make could so easily have been made by the police service. Is there not an argument that would suggest that if that is so, then surely a secondary body to take on that duty simply frees up more time for the police service to carry out their day-to-day operations. I repeat what I am saying, in terms of new staff and the Northern Ireland Police Service, is this not just the sort of duty that it would be suggested could be favourable to having a secondary body looking at it, to let them concentrate on their day-to-day business and duties?
  (Mr Trimble) I think I understand the point you are making. It does not actually free up their time to deal with other things. The decision-making on a particular application absorbs the time and resources of a significant number of police officers. If that could be done at a higher level, that would involve some time there, but I do not think that would be entirely significant. It was the case, particularly in 1996, that senior police officers were saying that they disliked a situation where they found themselves stuck in the middle between two groups, that whatever decision they took there had to be a better way of dealing with the issue. The better way of dealing with the issue that emerged has not made the lives of the police any easier, they are still in the same position of being stuck between two groups. The fact that the police have not directly taken the decision this time does not really confer any benefit. I think we have a problem. The problem, at the end of the day, comes back to the issue. While I think that some elements have clearly come to exploit the issue and to raise the profile of this issue, there is an issue. We are also back to the legislative framework, that because it is public order related it confers an incentive on either side bringing the greater force to bear. The legislative structure and the rewards for whoever produces brings forward a greater force. The only escape from that situation is to try and have a law based approach which focuses on rights, and even that might be difficult to operate. Therein I think lies the future, a hope for the future. The main hope for the future is trying to create a situation where popular tension is defused, and that comes back to promoting greater understanding.

  444. In respect of your involvement with the negotiations in Drumcree, if the RUC had been responsible do you think, given the evidence, they would have come up with any different determination, other than to allow the march to take place?
  (Mr Trimble) I did myself think in 1998, in the run up to 1998, I thought this would hold true for the Parades Commission. Anybody who looked at 1997, when the decision-making power rested with the Secretary of State, the then Secretary of State Mo Mowlam decided not to interfere with the parade and let the parade proceed. It did so proceed. While there was some medial difficulties, the level of tension of conflict in the community was significantly less than it had been in 1996 when we started. The position in 1995/1996, arising first from a decision by a senior police officer at the scene and the second time the decision was taken in advance to that, if one compares the difficulties that there was on the ground then with the problems in 1997 it seems to me that was the rational way forward, as clearly pointed out. Yes, if the decision had rested with the police and the Secretary of State there will be occasions, as there was in 1996, and, of course, that goes right back through all of the public order we have had cases going back throughout the century and the previous century and efforts and were made to deal with this issue. I can say that my knowledge goes right back to 1883, the Parties Procession Act which was a failure. We were there before.


  445. First Minister, the first of my supplementary questions will appear a little wide of the subjects we have been discussing, but you will appreciate the majority of this Committee is from Great Britain and, therefore, one of our needs is to make sure we have a cultural understanding of the issues which we are dealing with. The Police Community Consultative Groups came in in Great Britain following Lord Scarman's Report on the riots in Brixton. At least, speaking from my own constituency, we now have three in different parts. They are now being broken down into sector working parties. I would like to say, at least so far as my constituency is concerned, they work well. We did take evidence from the Police Community Consultative Group on our RUC Report and I could not help noticing what I appreciate are foreign powers in Northern Ireland, for reasons we are all familiar, that the Police Community Consultative Group in Northern Ireland was not as, perhaps, advanced in subjects it was taking or the information that the police were prepared to share as it would have been in central London. Is that something which you would regard as predictable and normal, and if you did think that, do you think it is likely to change?
  (Mr Trimble) The Community Police Liaison Committees we have in Northern Ireland have done very valuable work and a lot of good people are involved in that work. They are hampered by the fact that they are not representative of society because there are political parties that are reluctant and refuse to get involved in that or to encourage people to be involved in that. That would be one reason why the Police Community Consultative Groups here are not as effective as they are across the water. Furthermore, I can well understand that police would have been reluctant to be engaged against the background of the terrorist campaign, with the importance of intelligence I can understand that the police would be a lot more cautious in their approach to that than would be the case across the border, because we do not have quite the same problem in terms of processions. That may even reflect a wider understanding or approach by the police, where they are more concerned to protect their information and the integrity of relations. This is something that I hope we will change. It is changing already in Northern Ireland because of the different context. We are now operating it and one is delighted to see further developments occurring in it. If we may, there are many parts of Great Britain where we have exactly the same problem as elsewhere. I did have the pleasure of attending the Lanarkshire Parade of the Orange Order, and they told me with great pride they now thought they were bigger than Belfast. My own view is they have not quite achieved that yet.

  446. My first question was a paving question for my second question, by chance, and it is a matter of total coincidence, my constituency must be marched over more often than any other constituency in the country and, perhaps, outside Northern Ireland, simply because of its centrality and the fact that Trafalgar Square is within it. People who are going to meet in Trafalgar Square—and to get to Trafalgar Square sometimes they come from the other side of the river, but nevertheless my constituency is the heart of it—the police are in charge of those marches and they work closely with the organisers of the marches as to what the routes are and what the rules are going to be. They are also using the Public Order Act of 1936 and the subsequent Act of the 1980s. Sometimes things go wrong. Historically the Home Secretary, who was the Police Authority until 12 months ago, has had the power to intervene. I am not absolutely certain, but I am sure there is a relationship between his powers and the new Police Authorities in the new circumstances. There has always been the Home Secretary standing behind the Metropolitan Police in terms of their own decisions and determinations. What all that leads up to is the Assistant Chief Constable of the RUC when giving evidence to us indicated so far as the RUC were concerned they were content, I think it would be fair to say, that the determination, the role of determination has been taken out of their hands and that their responsibility might be to render advice. Their responsibility was to police the events without having to take the critical decisions. Do you want to make any comment on that before we close our session?
  (Mr Trimble) I have touched on this earlier. This was a view very strongly expressed by some police officers in 1996, they wanted, as it were, somebody else to take the decision for them. That responsibility has been taken from them police now and moved somewhere else. I do not want this to sound too critical, I am not sure if handing over—I would be happy to see the responsibility go elsewhere—the police are not, to some extent, reneging on their duty. It is not an easy thing to do and it is not an easy function to discharge. Insofar as there is an expertise in the matter it rests more with the police and with the Secretary of State and the people advising him in terms of dealing with the policing issues and the political issues that are there. It is conceivable that if the responsibility is moved from the Secretary of State and the police to another group of people those people would eventually have the same level of expertise in policing issues and political issues that exist with regard to the police and the Secretary of State and manifestly the present Parades Commission does not have that nor does it have the accountability that is there. While the Chief Constable is not directly accountable to the public there is a degree of accountability that is there in terms of his accountability to the Police Authority or whatever the arrangements are to replace that. Of course the Secretary of State is politically accountable. We are dealing with policing functions and political functions. It is important that they be accountable. If the matter is handed over, yes, police officers may feel they do not have to show responsibility but the responsibility is to exercise without the accountability, and I think that is a better position.

  Chairman: I am sure I speak on behalf of whole Committee, First Minister, for our appreciation to you not only for coming to give evidence but for the evidence you have given and the manner in which you have given it. We are extremely grateful to you.

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