Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Third Special Report


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.

Paragraph 32

Although the 'parades issue' 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, namely:

—  Church parades B parades either preceded or followed by a church service;

—  Commemorative parades B parades which commemorate a particular event, such as 12 July or St. Patrick's day;

—  Band parades B 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.

Paragraph 47

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.

Paragraph 48

The Mediation Network suggested that the Commission should seek to define the parades conflict more clearly. It commented that A 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 conflict'. 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.

Paragraph 63

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.

Paragraph 78

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.

Paragraph 83

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 the Commission.

Paragraph 86

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.

Paragraph 96

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.

Paragraph 98

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 more fully.

Paragraph 101

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.

Paragraph 106

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.

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Prepared 29 November 2001