Letter to the Clerk from the Parades Commission
On behalf of the Commission I would like to thank
the Committee for their reports into the operation of the Parades
Commission. We have found the exercise of immense value to us
in the exercise of our statutory responsibilities and in informing
our strategic direction.
I attach a memorandum responding to those recommendations
made by the Committee which relate directly to the responsibility
of the Commission.
Although the 'parades
is frequently seen as monolithic, sectarian parades, whether loyalist
or nationalist, differ markedly in character depending on their
purpose. The Mediation Network identified three principal types,
parades either preceded or followed by a church service;
parades which commemorate a particular event, such as 12 July
or St. Patrick's
parades, overwhelmingly in the loyalist tradition, which include
those organized by bands themselves, frequently for the purpose
of raising funds, but also include a much wider spectrum of events.
The information is available to sustain an analysis
of the extent to which each category of parade is subject to route
restrictions and conditions. We recommend that the Commission
includes an appropriate table in its Annual Reports.
The Commission in its latest Annual Report has substantially
increased the section given to analysis of parades and their restriction.
The categories identified by Mediation Network are not sufficiently
discrete as to permit categorization on this basis. There are
many parades which would fit simultaneously into Church parade
or Commemorative parade. The Commission accepts that Band parades
are more easily identified. The Commission is working towards
improving its presentation and analysis of parade information.
The majority of the evidence we received clearly
indicated that there would be general advantage in engagement
between the Orange institutions and the Commission. A useful first
step might be for Grand Lodge to spell out the specific barriers
it sees to engagement, and suggest how the Commission and others
might act to overcome them.
The Commission welcomes the Committee's
conclusion in this regard. The Commission has long stressed the
importance of those interested in parading issues presenting their
arguments and providing the Commission with all information at
their disposal, which supports their respective positions. This
is essential to enable the Commission to arrive at informed decisions
in those situations where no local accommodation is forthcoming.
It is also crucial in establishing greater trust.
The Mediation Network suggested that the Commission
should seek to define the parades conflict more clearly. It commented
a simple exposition of the issues"
would be helpful in stimulating a more productive debate. It sees
the root of parades disputes as twofold: the relationship or social
order between paraders and opponents may have broken down, or
it may have been unhealthy in the first place. It identifies five
specific dimensions to the parades conflict
religious, political, public order, social and economic, and communal,
and suggests that Athe
Parades Commission could usefully generate discussion and offer
support to those concerned with each of these dimensions so that,
at all the essential levels of society, a more focused discussion
could take root in both public and private discourse."
It recognizes, though, that Aestablishing
a new consensual social order between the traditions in Northern
Ireland regarding parades is a long term process, stretching beyond
the tenure of the present Commission."
It might be that progress along these lines would assist the Orange
Institutions in engaging with the Commission.
The Commission accepts that such an exposition would
be useful. It has sought to produce such a wider understanding
through sending out messages in its Annual report, its determinations
and press statements and through active face to face engagement
with those interested in the 'parades
The Commission also accepts that this is likely to be a long term
process and as part of this acknowledgement is seeking to address
some of these issues through the development of an educational
programme for delivery to young people and through continuing
to reach out to parading organizations. The Grand Lodge's
ban on dialogue remains an important barrier to progress.
We have seen a summary of the audit of the relationship
between the RUC and the Parades Commission. We welcome this review
and would encourage both bodies to build on its conclusions.
The Commission acknowledges this encouragement and
is currently taking forward this area of work with the Police
Service of Northern Ireland.
Whether or not individual witnesses saw Authorised
Officers of the Commission as successful, they clearly have a
key part to play in its work. Given their change of status, when
they come under the control of the Commission rather than the
Mediation Network, it seems likely that they be perceived as more
associated with the Commission than before. This may impact on
their acceptability as mediators. We therefore recommend that
the Commission should not use them to report on parades, but should
employ separate staff for this purpose, as the Mediation Network
has already suggested. Also, arrangements for their supervision
should ensure that Commissioners who have overseen mediation work
should not play an active part in decisions on parades to which
that work relates.
The Commission fully understands the need to distinguish
as clearly as possible between its role in determining on parades
and its role in promoting and facilitating mediation.
The Authorised Officers remain, as previously, self-employed
individuals. For administrative purposes there is an officer of
the Commission Secretariat who liaises with the team of Authorised
Officers, for example, in relation to pay and communication. There
is, deliberately, no oversight of the Authorised Officers by members
of the Parades Commission.
The Commission understands that it would be helpful
in terms of perceptions if Authorised Officers were not involved
in reporting on individual parades, and is seeking to develop
a much larger team of monitors than is currently available. It
is of course important that these monitors have the skills and
objectivity to report effectively and without prejudice on parades.
We view with some concern the Chairman's
view that the Commission's
procedures in relation to decisions on parades may be open to
challenge on the grounds of natural justice. We recommend that
the Government and the Commission consider urgently whether the
procedures need to be improved by greater transparency and, if
so, to put the necessary steps in hand.
The Committee will be aware that the Commission has
legitimate concerns that any weakening of its guarantee of confidentiality
to those providing information to the Commission could seriously
damage the willingness of people to come forward and engage with
the Commission. This could restrict significantly the Commission's
ability to carry out its remit in full.
At present a case concerning the Commission's
adherence to this rule of confidentiality and disclosure in general
is before the Northern Ireland Courts. The case is currently listed
for mention on 21 December 2001. The Commission will pay close
attention to the outcome of this case and will make every effort
to promote greater transparency where this does not offer risk
to the personal safety of individuals who seek to engage with
Disclosures of sensitive personal information
may be very damaging in the Northern Ireland context, in whichever
direction. We greatly regret that any such disclosures have taken
place in the past and recommend that every effort is made by the
Commission to seek to prevent recurrences. Not only may such disclosures
unnecessarily expose the persons concerned to enhanced levels
of personal risk, they may also contribute to a reinforcement
of perceptions in the community concerned about the competence
of the Commission.
The Commission fully accepts this recommendation.
The Commission takes scrupulous efforts to ensure that confidentiality
is maintained but accepts its inadvertent involvement in one disclosure.
This was responded to immediately by a review of its systems resulting
in changes to procedures to ensure no further recurrences.
We recommend that, as a matter of policy, the
Commission sends official observers to all parades in respect
of which a determination had been made.
The Commission accepts this recommendation in principle
and is working to this end. At present it does not have sufficient
resources in terms of the size and flexibility of its pool of
monitors to enable it to meet this recommendation.
The Commission saw a number of practical difficulties
with the concept of linkage of parades, rather than always considering
them separately as the current legislation requires, not least
because it appeared to mean different things to different people.
It has, however, considered the matter further and concluded that
it would be helpful if it had a power enabling it to make general
policy statements in relation to individual contentious areas
only. We recommend that the Government examine this proposal carefully.
To date the Commission has had some preliminary discussion
with the Government on the concept and practical out workings
of linking parades. The Commission is shortly to undergo a major
review, and this will provide an opportunity to examine this issue
The greatest contribution to enhancing the level
of prosecution of offences under the Act would clearly be to improve
the evidential base. We have already recommended that Commission
should seek to have observers present at all parades in respect
of which a determination has been issued. One logical function
of such observers would be to report to the Commission the conduct
of the parade, thus reducing its reliance on police reports.
The Commission is aware that the receipt of reports
from trained observers at parades reduces its reliance on police.
The Commission currently receives reports from its trained monitors
on the conduct of those parades which they are deployed to observe.
However, the Commission is of the opinion that the police, as
professional law enforcement officers, are best placed to understand
the proofs required for a successful prosecution and also best
placed with the resources to collate the evidence required.
As the Northern Ireland Office commented, the
position of human rights is complex. We are grateful for the two
memoranda we have received on this subject, which bear out the
very real complexities and uncertainties. It seems likely, therefore,
that the courts may have to decide on some important matters,
such as the balance between the various rights, and the scope
of their restriction on the grounds of a wider public interest.
Although the Chairman of the Commission expressed doubts over
the present need for it to have a power to assist litigants, we
recommend that consideration be given to enabling the Commission
to contribute to the legal costs of parties taking cases that
raise points of general importance in relation to the clarification
of the application to parades of human rights law.
The Commission is aware that in most cases where
its decisions have been judicially reviewed the applicants have
been assisted through the provision of legal aid. The Commission
is also aware that The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
has a role in regard to assisting cases before the courts which
touch on human rights. The Commission does not feel that it would
be useful for it to have this role also.