HC Deb 11 July 1985 vol 82 cc1245-8
3. Mr. Bell

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will now make a definitive statement of Government policy on marches in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hurd

The Government recognise the right of people in Northern Ireland to parade peacefully. Many such parades are held each year with no significant risk to public order. But a few are deliberately provocative and calculated to cause trouble, and others can cause difficulty because of the preferred route. In such circumstances, it is for the police to discuss the route with the organisers and if necessary for the police to order a change in the route on public order grounds. That is a decision for the RUC alone. If after considering the advice of the police it appears to me that, with or without re-routeing, a parade is likely to cause serious public disorder, I may ban it. I fully support the Chief Constable's approach and I urge those who are involved in organising these parades to cooperate with the police and, of course, to obey the law.

Mr. Bell

We welcome the Secretary of State's definitive policy on that issue and the fact that there is a mix of political judgment and operational responsibility. The difference between the two has given the impression, as we have seen today, that the Government are dithering on the issue. We are grateful for that explanation of the Government's policy. However, can the Secretary of State give us any idea of the magnitude of police resources that have to be committed to controlling marches and parades in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. During 1984 there were more than 2,240 parades, at which some 39,000 police officers were deployed. The estimated cost of that policing effort was more than £2 million.

Rev. Ian Paisley

In the light of the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has just made, will he explain why on 3 February, 5 May, 15 May, 16 May and 23 June this year there were five illegal Sinn Fein/IRA parades through Toomebridge, yet no action was taken? At that time a shot was fired from the hotel, but because of the thinness of the police on the ground, the police were held back by an unruly mob, and it was only later that the gun that was used to fire at the police was recovered.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that these matters come under the enforcement of the law and are for the RUC to deal with. I am sure that he has already given his version of the events of those days, or has encouraged other witnesses to give their versions, to the RUC.

Mr. Hume

Does the Secretary of State agree that the police handling of parades in Northern Ireland at present reveals many contradictions in policy? For example, why is it right to re-route a parade in Portadown tomorrow and on Saturday, whereas it was wrong to re-route last Sunday? Why was it right to prevent an Orange parade going through a Catholic housing estate in Cookstown last week, and why will it be allowed to go through that estate tomorrow? Why is it right to ban a parade in Castlewellan —and rightly so—because it is 95 per cent. Catholic, but not to do so in Pomeroy, which is also 95 per cent. Catholic? What is the basis on which these decisions are taken? Is it, as it should be, the susceptibilities of citizens along the route, or is it simply a question of which side will cause the most trouble, which is how it appears? If that is the policy, that is surrendering the ground to the men of violence on all sides.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman's question illustrates one of the difficulties. People in both communities sometimes find it difficult to recognise a reasonable compromise when they see one. The RUC must make decisions on re-routeing place by place and parade by parade after taking account of all the local factors. That is what it is doing, and it is increasingly recognised that the RUC is handling the situation with much common sense.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I support the comments made earlier from the Opposition Front Bench, but should not the message go out from both sides of the House that those responsible for organising marches in Northern Ireland, from whichever side they come, should abide by the decisions of the RUC and the Chief Constable? If necessary, the Secretary of State should tell them that that is what we expect this coming weekend.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The more I listen to views, particularly private views, on this subject, the more sure I become that in Northern Ireland it is possible to celebrate a battle or a tradition without provoking or humiliating those who do not belong to that tradition. That must be the right way to handle the matter.

Mr. Proctor

When my right hon. Friend defended the highlighting of re-routeing the last time he answered Northern Ireland questions, he referred to the amount of police time used to protect marches which could have been released for other security functions. Following the highlighting of re-routeing, has police time involved in marching activities increased or decreased?

Mr. Hurd

I gave the very substantial figures for last year. If, when the Chief Constable re-routes a parade or, as in the case of Castlewellan, I ban it, and the organisers in some way defy that, police resources must then be deployed to apply the law. The right answer is for the police and the organisers to reach agreement on a sensible route. That is done in a very large number of cases, and when that happens police resources and the expenditure on policing such a parade are greatly reduced.

Mr. McCusker

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that when the men of north Armagh tomorrow try to walk into Portadown over the route which they and their forefathers have traversed since 1796, they will be motivated not by any desire to break the laws of their country but by a sense of historic necessity to express, as they have always done, their legitimate pride in the possession of their lands and liberties? They know instinctively that they survive only by their solidarity and determination. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that unless that is understood, the people who will be dealt with tomorrow will be dealt with, not in a manner likely to maintain the peace, but in one likely to lead to a breach of it?

Mr. Hurd

Solidarity and determination are admirable qualities, but if the hon. Gentleman is saying that they can be expressed in Northern Ireland or in Portadown only by the attempt to assert, against the law, the traditional route which originally ran through green fields and now runs past houses occupied almost overwhelmingly by Catholics, he is making a case that is incomprehensible, to use a mild word, everywhere outside the Unionist community?

Mr. Flannery

Does the Minister agree that if we all insisted on doing precisely what our forefathers had done, all kinds of frightening things would be happening in the world? Does he remember that when I spoke in the debate on the renewal of the emergency provisions I pleaded with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) not to engage in these provocations? Is it not a fact that when a leading figure makes it clear that there is an issue at stake in whether a parade goes through an area and then provokes the people in that area, the Member concerned is deliberately trying to provoke trouble when we are trying to stop it?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apply the same morals and lessons to those whose company he frequents and favours in the North. The respect for the law, the sensitivities, the rights and the lives of others whom he exemplified in his question is not always evident in their actions.

Mr. Beggs

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the sight of a Union flag, a poppy or any other expression of British identity is seen as provocative by many supporters of the SDLP and Sinn Fein? Does he recognise that the banning or re-routing of traditional, Orange and Loyalist peaceful parades can contribute only to the establishment of anti-British ghettos, where the forces of the Crown are unwelcome and people are unable to express their loyalty to the constitution and the Crown?

Mr. Hurd

One of the problems is that there are many symbols in Northern Ireland and many people in both communities who are determined to provoke and be provoked. However, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman, with his record and his view, believes that Northern Ireland can make progress out of its many difficulties if, in either community, it is felt that the only way to preserve identity or solidarity is to do and say things designed to humiliate others.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Do the figures which the Secretary of State has given us show how much police time was involved in dealing with parades that were not notified? Is any record kept of unnotified parades? Will he acknowledge that the interference of self-appointed protectors outwith the United Kingdom have done more than anything else to inflame the attitude of Loyalists, at this time of the year, towards parades?

Mr. Hurd

I understand that point. I do not have the figures for which the hon. Gentleman asked. By definition, it is difficult to have figures on meetings or gatherings that are not notified, but I shall look into the matter.

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