HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc507-22 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement about the report of the independent review of parades and marches in Northern Ireland, which was published this morning in Belfast.

Last summer, public disorder occurred in Northern Ireland on a very grave scale, associated in particular, but not exclusively, with a parade at Drumcree. Immense disruption was caused, with massive damage to property, including churches and schools. The murder of a taxi driver may also have been related. Deep and lasting injury was inflicted on both sides of the community, and on the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who were placed in an intolerable position. Actual and threatened force obliged the Chief Constable to reverse a previous order, in the interest of avoiding loss of life, which is always his first duty. The improvement in Northern Ireland's image, which is so important economically in particular, was sharply reversed.

In the light of those shocking events, I announced on 15 July the establishment of the review, with the task of making recommendations about the future management of controversial parades.

The review was asked to consider the existing arrangements for handling public processions and open-air meetings in Northern Ireland, including the adequacy of the current legal provisions; the powers and responsibilities of the Secretary of State, the police and others; the possible need for new machinery; and the possible role for and composition of codes of practice relating to parades and meetings.

The review body comprised Dr. Peter North, vice-chancellor of Oxford university, the Very Rev. Dr. John Dunlop and Father Oliver Crilly. We are all indebted to Dr. North and his colleagues for the energy, determination and thoroughness with which they have tackled their very difficult task.

The report is a long and closely argued document, with more than 40 recommendations. It proposes, as the foundation of its other recommendations, that seven fundamental principles should form the basis for the development of processes and procedures governing parades. I should say immediately that the Government accept those principles, which include both the protection of the right to peaceful free assembly and the need to ensure—preferably through local accommodation—that the exercise of that right takes proper account of foreseeable effects on relationships within the community.

The report emphasises the predominant importance of reaching local agreement on every contentious parade. It goes on to recommend that an independent commission should be established as a focus for promoting and facilitating mediation and the search for such local accommodation in respect of contentious marches. It also proposes that, in default of successful mediation, the commission would have legal powers to issue a determination in respect of a contentious parade, but with a power for the Chief Constable—if he is concerned about it—to refer such a determination to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State would then decide the matter by endorsing, revising or reversing the determination, applying the same statutory criteria as the commission.

Furthermore, it is proposed that a senior police officer could override a determination on the day of a parade if the police found that, as a result of the likely impact on public order, they were unable to uphold it. The report recommends that a new offence be created of deliberately contravening, through force of numbers or threat of disorder, a decision of the commission—for example, by seeking to block an authorised parade.

The report also recommends that the statutory criteria for making decisions on parades set out in the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 should be enlarged to enable specific consideration to be given to the wider impact of contentious parades on relationships within the community. It also makes a wide range of further major recommendations, including, for example, the extension of the period of notice of a planned parade required to be given to the police from the current period of not fewer than seven days to not fewer than 21 days; and the preparation of a statutory code of conduct covering the behaviour of parade participants and protesters.

We recognise the report's description of the parades issue as a microcosm of the wider political problems of Northern Ireland, and as one that has the capacity to polarise the community and to engage levels of emotion and commitment that few other issues reach. Because of that, the Government have a responsibility to take the issues forward as far as possible on a basis of widespread agreement within the community so that whatever new arrangements are put in place may be recognised as fair and workable, and therefore acceptable. In that way, they stand the best chance of being effective and successful. As Dr. North and his colleagues say: our shared view is that the way to the complete resolution of the issue is through the community working together in search of mutual accommodation. It is against this background that the Government have considered the proposals contained in the report.

The Government agree that an independent body could indeed play a constructive and valuable role in helping to resolve disputes concerning contentious parades. The Government believe that a new body of that kind could provide a valuable focus and a catalyst for mediation and conciliation efforts at local level. In respect of these non-adjudicatory functions, the Government endorse the report's recommendations, which they believe should be implemented without delay.

At the same time, the Government recognise that the proposal that an independent body should, as part of its duties, take over the RUC's decision-making power in respect of parades is a radical and far-reaching one. The report notes the wide range of views that it received on precisely that issue. Therefore, it would not, in our view, be right for Government—without further but time-limited consultation—to reach a decision on so fundamental a proposal.

It therefore expresses no opinion on it either way, but it will seek the views of interested groups on the report's proposal that the commission should have a decision-making role of this kind and, if so, on the way in which it might be exercised. That consultation will also encompass those of the North recommendations linked directly to the role of a commission, including those directed at the possible expansion of the statutory criteria, the publication of guidelines that the commission would take into account and the creation of a new criminal offence of setting out deliberately to contravene a legal determination.

This consultation will not duplicate the consultation already conducted by Dr. North and his colleagues, but will be a precisely focused and time-limited exercise to give public representatives and others who are directly concerned the opportunity to comment on an important matter of real concern to them and those whom they represent. The Government envisage that the period of consultation will last until the end of March. In any event, implementation of the recommendation, if that were to be the decision eventually reached, would require a statutory basis. While final decisions on the way forward on this issue may fall to the new Parliament, the Government, for their part, are clear that any such provision should be provided by primary legislation—by Bill rather than by Order in Council.

The Government therefore intend to establish, as soon as possible, an independent body of five people, to be known as the Parades Commission, with the mediation, conciliation and education roles recommended in the report. We intend that the new commission should be in place ahead of this year's marching season, precisely because we recognise that it has a valuable role to play, potentially, of that character, and could also have the capacity to act as a valuable and reassuring channel of communication with all interested parties, including the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Secretary of State. Further details of its operation will be promulgated when the membership of the commission is announced. Legislation will not be required for this purpose.

Turning to the report's recommendations that are not directly linked to the role of a commission and do not therefore fall to be considered as part of the consultation exercise, the Government accept them all, subject to further consideration of how these might best be implemented in practice.

In particular, we agree that a code of conduct, covering parades, protests and open-air public meetings, should be prepared and published for consultation as soon as practicable. We agree that a registration scheme for bands should be introduced as soon as the necessary practical arrangements can be put in place.

We agree that the period of notice for parades should be extended from seven to 21 days, that the amendments that the report proposes to article 3 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 should be implemented, and that consideration should be given to the changes suggested to articles 4(1)(b) and 7; and that appropriate provisions for the control of alcohol in respect of those travelling to both processions and open-air meetings in Northern Ireland should be introduced. We shall implement these changes as soon as practicable.

We agree that parade organisers should not be required to post bonds or provide proof of insurance cover, and that steps should not be taken to seek a contribution to policing costs from parade organisers or protesters.

The House will, I think, join me in thanking Dr. North and his colleagues for producing this report, which represents an extremely important contribution to our consideration of these difficult and complex matters.

The events of last summer cast a pall of fear across Northern Ireland. As the report states, an abyss of anarchy opened up. All people of good will must surely demand that there be no repetition, but no mechanisms and no procedures can be enough on their own.

There needs to be within all who live in Northern Ireland the will and the personal determination that last year's terrible events shall never again occur. To that end, the Government pledge that they will play their own part to the full.

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I also thank the authors of the report, Dr. Peter North, Father Oliver Crilly and the Very Rev. John Dunlop, and their staff. It is a thorough and useful report that addresses issues of significance that in the end require politicians to make political judgments.

At heart, the issue is about the rule of law. We believe that the rule of law is paramount, and we hope that all parties in the House will join us in fully supporting the rule of law.

The review conducted by Dr. Peter North and his colleagues was demanded, as the Secretary of State said, by the events of Drumcree last year, when, as the Royal Ulster Constabulary former Chief Constable said, the consent to comply with the rule of law did not exist. The police were put in an impossible position. The House has a duty to do all that it can to prevent such a situation from arising again. The security forces in Northern Ireland enforce the will of the House with day-to-day courage and determination. We should not ask them to play piggy in the middle again.

In August, we saw a glimmer of hope when, as a result of a clear Government decision, and alongside local efforts by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Mr. Alistair Simpson of the Apprentice Boys, the tensions were effectively contained.

We must keep this problem in proportion. Of the many hundreds of parades that occurred last year, only a handful created problems. Every effort must be made to ensure that, whenever possible, local agreement is reached through discussion and mediation, as the report acknowledges. Only when those efforts are exhausted should other, more formal, mechanisms be employed.

To those who say that the recommendations of the report could breach their fundamental rights, I say this: the right to march is a fundamental human right. We support that right and it is fully supported in the report, which says: The right to peaceful free assembly should be protected". But, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition would say, all rights carry responsibilities. The responsibility in this case is to take account of the likely effect exercising one's right to march may have on relationships with other parts of the community.

The report is no panacea, and further examination, either by the Government or by a commission, is clearly required in certain areas, such as the content of a code of conduct, or the length of period of notice for parades. Will the Secretary of State enter into immediate discussion with us and others? By the end of February there could be consensus and continued bipartisanship on measures that could be put in place immediately in March, either legislatively or administratively, so that any Government will be better prepared for the 1997 marching season.

I agree with the Secretary of State that it is important to get this right: we will store up trouble for the years ahead if we do not. Unless the right hon. and learned Gentleman acts on the guts of the report, the staged approach that he recommends will be undermined.

After thoroughly examining the views of all interested parties, members of the review team recommended that, on balance, what is central is that an independent commission should be created, that it should not be an advisory body but that its conclusions should have the force of law, subject of course to appeal and review. We support the recommendation, and would like the Secretary of State to explain to the House why further consultations are necessary on that point. What views will he seek that have not already been sought by the reviewers? Furthermore, why does he think that in just eight weeks he will be able to improve on the conclusions that those who conducted the review reached over five months?

Will the Secretary of State clarify—I am not sure whether I have understood the report correctly—why he believes that a commission would take over the RUC's powers? My understanding is that the RUC would retain the power to ask for any decision to be reviewed by the Secretary of State, and would maintain operational flexibility.

We have been constructively critical: we have tried to make positive suggestions on this issue for more than 18 months, and we have urged the Secretary of State to take further action. We are in the business not of casting blame but of accepting responsibility. We have co-operated successfully with the Government throughout the past 18 months—most recently, over the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill—and we shall continue to give bipartisan support in the search for peace in Northern Ireland. We offer the Secretary of State our full support again today for the legislation that we urge him to introduce based on this report.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her concluding remarks. I gladly pay tribute to her party for the co-operation that it has given the Government in carrying out responsibilities that transcend party political tactics and matters of party political significance.

I am also grateful for her opening remarks, especially for her acknowledgement that every effort must at all times be made to reach local agreement. These are contentious marches because they arouse contention in the localities that they affect. The thrust of the report is that only after mediation and conciliation efforts have failed will there be a place for adjudication. That will always be second best to agreement. I think that the hon. Lady and I are at one of that.

I also acknowledge what the hon. Lady said about the qualified nature of all rights of this character. The report is correct in saying that if a right to march or protest is to be exercised, it must always be exercised with regard to how such action will impinge on opposite rights that are engaged at the same time and in the same locality. It is a question of balance, or, as the report puts it, of proportionality.

The hon. Lady asked whether the Government would consult the Opposition about what might be able to be put in place by the end of February. I have no difficulty in saying, "Yes, we will"—and, indeed, that we will consult all others who have a proper interest. We want to establish, as quickly as is practicable, a commission with what, rather uncomfortably, I have called the non-adjudicatory responsibilities that the report specifies, and we will do that.

I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said about the importance of getting this right. Lest anyone complain about the fact that we are consulting, I reiterate what the Prime Minister has already reminded the House. The report itself says: No doubt there will be a period of consultation. It also says: We are well aware that it is for the Government to take a view on how far it wishes to adopt our recommendations. It is to get it right on the second limb of the recommendations that the Government are proposing a tightly focused and short-term period of consultation. In the meantime, we express no opinion one way or the other on that part of the recommendations. That is why we make that point.

The consultation exercise is not a re-run of the review. That was another of the hon. Lady's questions. Interested parties have already had an opportunity to present their views, but they will not have seen the report's far-reaching and important recommendations until today. We recognise that we have a heavy responsibility to take the report and the issues forward, on the basis of the widest possible agreement within the community. That is why we are proposing a consultation period that is precisely focused and time-limited. We are committed—once we have made decisions in the light of that consultation—to implement them as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady asked why I had said that this would be taking powers from the RUC. She is right in saying that the report says that, in the absence of mediation, the commission would have the determining power itself, but that would be subject—if the Chief Constable were concerned about it—to the Chief Constable's power to refer the matter to the Secretary of State, who thereafter would be the determining authority. That is, of course, a radical departure from the present position, in which the Chief Constable both makes the decision and enforces it, in the light only of considerations relating to public order.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I welcome the Secretary of State's undertaking that any implementation of the report will be by proper legislation, rather than by means of the thoroughly unsatisfactory Order in Council procedure. I also welcome his decision to consult further on the more radical proposals in the report—proposals that do indeed have constitutional implications. In doing that, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is drawing a distinction between the conciliation functions suggested for the commission, and the adjudication functions. He has put his finger on an important point: that conciliation and adjudication are, by their very nature, two different functions, and that to give them to the same body will result in the adjudication function distorting and undermining the question of conciliation.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in the present circumstances, the overriding need is to maintain the Queen's peace and to leave the highways free for all who wish to proceed along them peacefully? Does he agree that that responsibility must rest with the police and the Government? As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) said, at the end of the day these are matters requiring political judgment.

I understand the desire to promote conciliation, but let me put two points to the Secretary of State. One has to bear it in mind that, if one creates too elaborate a machinery, it gives rise to more rather than fewer problems, and some elements in society in Northern Ireland are determined to use the problems to create serious public disorder.

That brings me to a point that amazed me when reading the report. I have had only a few hours to read it, and perhaps the Secretary of State can correct me, but I think that the report contains no reference to the IRA, to Sinn Fein and to those elements that are associated with them, which have used these occasions to foment serious public disorder Is it not a serious failing that the report has failed to consider the basic underlying problem, and does that not to some extent undermine the approach?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for aspects of what I have said, and can move to his following points. He asks whether conciliation and adjudication are not very different concepts. Of course that is correct—they are. One of the objections to the present jurisdiction of the Chief Constable under the legislation is that he is both the decider of the issue, after attempts to conciliate and to find a local agreement, and thereafter the enforcer. That point was made by many people, apparently, to the commission. The hon. Gentleman's point as to whether the one can be done properly together with the other by the same body is a proper matter for consultation. It is one of the issues that will necessarily be discussed in the period that I have described.

The hon. Gentleman speaks of the Chief Constable's duties. Of course the parades give rise to difficult and delicate public order issues—we all know that—but the issues are not limited to public order. They give rise to wider aspects, which may be described as aspects of community relations or political aspects. As I have said, saving of life must always be the Chief Constable's first duty. Whether there is a satisfactory manner in which an independent body can take the decisions that will have major effects on public order and safety, determining them in the light of the principles that have been given is exactly the type of matter about which we need to hear advice.

Although many of these protests are genuinely made, there are some indications, as we all know, that they are used for strictly political purposes. I cannot point to a reference of the sort that the hon. Gentleman asks me about, but reality and realism suggest that that reference is there, and the report does say that there is a real question for consideration as to what will be the trigger mechanism by which the commission's jurisdiction will be engaged.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Does the Secretary of State think that, because of the seriousness of the matter, he should meet the leaders of all parties in the House and further discuss the matter because, as the hon. Member for Redcar said, if we do not get it right this time, in years to come, we will reap? I remind the House that we are reaping today. We are reaping the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. I and other Unionist Members warned the House that that legislation would be a calamity.

I remind the House that every Unionist Member but three—the then hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), and the right hon. Members for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) and for Strangford (Mr. Taylor)—did short gaol sentences because we felt that it was our duty to breach that law to call the people's attention to its seriousness. The Secretary of State is well aware of one matter—that of traditional parades. When the right to them was breached by being removed from the legislation, there was all this trouble with such parades. Who made the statement that traditional parades would have to be removed from the legislation? It was none other than the Dublin authorities. They made it clear at the time and we protested in the House. We went to gaol so that people would be aware of the seriousness of the matter.

It is all very well for the hon. Member for Redcar to say that no civil rights are involved. Why cannot have the public order legislation that applies to the rest of the United Kingdom? Why is it unlawful for me to do something in Northern Ireland that it is perfectly lawful for me to do after I have crossed a stretch of water? Hon. Members need not tell me that there are differences, because there are differences over here, such as racial tensions. We do not have racial tensions: we have tensions of the other sort.

The leader of the Liberal Democrat party said that the measures should be enacted immediately, but to do that would make no difference whatever to the present situation The Belfast Telegraph thought that it could get support for them, so it ran a poll and thought that it would come out wonderfully. But the Secretary of State knows that the poll showed that, by a ratio of five to one, the parades would have to go on. To say that that can be remedied by a little education by a commission is nonsense.

This is a serious matter and it will have to be dealt with seriously. If people want to parade to a church building and are refused permission, as my constituents have been, they may have every window in the church broken and graves desecrated. Graffiti on the walls of the Orange hall stated, "The Orange Order will never walk". Such situations must be dealt with seriously. Will the Secretary of State ensure that whatever laws are put on the statute book everybody will be equally subject to them so that all are under the same law? Republican bands do not give seven days' notice: they walk and nothing is done about it.

Madam Speaker

Before the Secretary of State responds, I remind the House that we are asking questions on a serious report. I do not seek long comments and speeches but brisk questions and comments. Several hon. Members are on their feet, and I shall do my best to call as many as possible.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a serious matter. We must get it right, and it must be approached in a serious way. It would not be approached seriously if we implemented the report without giving people the opportunity of the character that I have described to express their opinions about the report's recommendations. I gladly give an undertaking that I will meet all party leaders and all others in a representative capacity who have an interest in these matters and wish to see me during the consultation period. That is important.

The hon. Gentleman asked why Northern Ireland needs something different from the rest of the United Kingdom. I must tell him that it is for the same unhappy reason as we need other provisions to enable the security forces to deal with powerful factors. The situation in Northern Ireland is different, the history is different, the forces and the influences are different and that needs to be recognised in our legislation. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said. I do not think that there will be the same need for him to feel, as he said at the beginning of his intervention, that his views have not been considered.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I compliment the North committee on the thoroughness with which, in the time available, it did a very difficult job. It did that job very well. But I must express my deep concern that the Government have taken the decision that the so-called "period of consultation" will very substantially postpone the date on which they and the House will make a decision on the matter. A decision will have to be made. Does the Secretary of State agree that there are only three options: that the Secretary of State will make the decisions; that the Chief Constable will make the decisions; or that a body, as recommended by the North committee, will make the decisions?

We know the views of the previous Chief Constable. He said that they were sick to death of being caught in the middle and of having to make political decisions. Is the Secretary of State aware of the perception that will now be abroad in the north of Ireland—that a British Government are again long-fingering something to get themselves over their problems in the House of Commons, and that, in the summer months, the well-being of the people of the north of Ireland will be secondary to that consideration? That is a cynical view. I am not saying that it is my view, but it is a perception.

We have discussed this matter all my political life, and hon. Members from every party have discussed it with the Secretary of State and others. If Opposition Members were to assure the Secretary of State that legislation to put the proposals in place would not be opposed and that parliamentary time would be agreed to ensure that primary legislation is allowed to give the matter the serious consideration that it deserves, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman proceed to introduce legislation? If so, when we reach the awful summer months that we must face, the decisions will at least have been made, the uncertainty will have been removed and the legislative process will have been decided.

Will the Secretary of State respond to the offers that I believe will be made by the Labour party, by the Liberal Democrats and certainly by our party and many of the other smaller parties to facilitate legislation, for the sake of the people of the north of Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for the compliment, which I am glad to endorse, paid by the hon. Gentleman to the quality of the report and to those who are responsible for it. On his last point, although I cannot commit business managers, I shall express a personal preference—which I believe the Government share—that the Government, once we have reached a conclusion on the matters covered by the consultation that we recommend and wish to conduct, implement the decision as soon as possible, especially if it requires legislation. That is the best practical answer I can give the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was a perception that the Government are putting the matter on the long finger and binning it. I am glad that he did not say that he holds that view himself, because it would be quite wrong to do so. The answer to the charge can be found in the passage, which the Prime Minister has already read out today, at paragraph 1.49, page 9 of the report. The commission itself states: No doubt there will be a period of consultation". It makes that statement in a manner that implies that it believes that doing so would be entirely reasonable. That is the answer to any cynical perception.

If I wanted to recommend means by which the matter could run away into the sand, I would recommend an open-ended period of consultation—not only on the second but on the first limb of the recommendations. I am not doing so at all, and I do not have the slightest difficulty in resisting and rebutting any perceptions of that character.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, for those of us who have had to grapple with this most difficult and taxing of problems, there was nothing wrong with the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, and that it could have worked perfectly well had all those concerned been willing to behave reasonably and to co-operate? Is it not the case, therefore, that any new proposals will need to command the widest possible support? In that connection, I warmly endorse the position that he has adopted, which is, I think, contrary to that of the leader of the Liberal party, who suggested that this is an occasion to ram legislation on to the statute book immediately. My right hon. and learned Friend is profoundly wise to have a brief period of consultation to see whether he can get wide support for the proposals, which will at least give them a better hope of working.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. He has carried these responsibilities, and I am certain that he is right to point to the pre-eminent importance of getting the will to co-operate, or local agreement. Legislation can play a part, but it can be no substitute for the desire for a sensible and workable means to be achieved whereby the competing rights can be properly balanced. I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's approval for the period of consultation that we propose.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who has had very distinguished experience as a Law Officer over a number of years, agree that the introduction of a requirement to co-operate with a commission that has a conciliatory and adjudicatory role before undertaking a sectarian march is a very small price to pay for the privilege of being able to march in that way?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not wish to depart from what I said in the statement, but the Government do not express an opinion one way or the other on what I might call the adjudicatory recommendations of the commission. It is self-evident—every hon. Member will agree—that there is a duty on all who wish to undertake a march or who wish to protest against such a march to co-operate with the relevant authorities.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement Will he agree that this is a time for very great caution? It would be unreasonable to impose unnecessary or excessive demands on the organisers of more than 3,100 nationalist and Unionist marches that habitually take place each year without disorder. May I draw his attention in particular to recommendation 20 of the summary of recommendations, which states that the police should retain the power to intervene on public order grounds in the extreme circumstances of the determination of the Parades Commission being defied". Does not this subordinate the police to an appointed commission rather than the democratically elected and accountable Government? Is not this a fundamental departure—one that is highly questionable and which some hon. Members may find it hard to accept?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

After nearly five years in this job, I see considerable sense in being generally rather cautious. Equally, there are circumstances when it is important to take hold of an issue and drive it. That is why I have thought it right to embrace and endorse straight away the non-adjudicatory recommendations of the report. It is right that there should be a commission. Naturally, we will want to see how best we can implement some of the matters that fall within that limb of the report. Therefore, whereas the more cautious approach might be to say that we shall consult about the whole boiling. I believe it to be right to take the course that we are taking in that regard.

As for the second limb—the adjudicatory functions—it is right to be cautious. It is, however, right to limit our consultation to a short period—a couple of months. There is an important constitutional position that the Chief Constable has operational responsibility. I shall not express an opinion one way or another; I simply observe that the report recommends that the chief officer on the spot will have the right to override any determination if he considers that his obligation to preserve life makes that necessary.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the Secretary of State agree that since the commencement of the peace process, dating from the Downing street declaration in December 1993, there has been a marked increase in the deterioration of community relations in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that the parades issue, for which the report is said to provide a panacea, is only a symptom of a much deeper condition, attributable to the Government's policy, which has unrealistically excited the expectations of the minority community while fuelling the anxiety—some might even say paranoia—of the majority community that their rights in many aspects of civil life are being gradually eroded? The Government's policy is the cause of the problem.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

No. I am rather disappointed by that contribution from the hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not think that it is factually right that a deterioration in community relations can be observed from the time of the Downing street declaration at the end of 1993. I think that the reverse is the case. There has, unfortunately, been a sharp worsening of community relations since the events of last summer. There is no doubt about that. Everybody that I know of agrees that there has been an increased polarisation and an increase in fear and bad relations between the two sides of the community.

As for the second part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, I think that fear lies at the root of many people's attitudes in Northern Ireland to a great extent. I recognise a fear among Unionists that there is a preordained ratchet process by which they irrevocably come nearer and nearer to what they most fear—the ending of the Union. That fear is not justified, but it exists. There is fear on the other side as well. Again, that fear is not justified in many instances, I believe.

The body recommended setting up a commission to take account of those fears and to give focus to the mediating and conciliatory jobs currently done by people in an unfocused way when a difficult march is incipient. I think that that will be valuable, which is why we have thought it right to endorse it straight away.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the most powerful arguments for allowing the proposed Parades Commission to exercise the power to determine a legally binding order on a march is that it would not put the Chief Constable in the invidious position in which he found himself last year?

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

That is not right.

Mr. Soley

That Chief Constable was retiring, but had he been newly in position, his position would have become untenable after Drumcree. Perhaps the Secretary of State will remind the Unionist party, from which I am receiving some comments at the moment, that enforcing the rule of law in Northern Ireland is vital and is a first priority for whichever party wins the next election. We shall not shirk that duty. It needs to be made abundantly clear that any challenge to the rule of law that took place last year has enormous implications for the people of Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have had some part in enforcing the rule of law in Northern Ireland since I first became Solicitor-General about 14 years ago, so I endorse the importance of that. I have always held it to be a prime responsibility of the Government. I am not going to get drawn into any evaluation of the merits of the proposal that the commission shall decide these matters. I think that it would be wrong to do so. I want to see what advice is offered. It is a matter of record that the last Chief Constable said that he was fed up with the police having to make decisions in such circumstances. It does not follow from that that it would be wrong or right to endorse the proposal that has been put forward. We want to hear people's views.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the Secretary of State clarify some doubt in my mind? Was there a degree of economy or of elasticity of the truth when he referred to the Chief Constable having to reverse a decision because of threats? The reality is that the first decision was taken because of threats of violence as well as a suspected input from the Maryfield secretariat. Has he paid particular attention to the review team's comments about the enforcement of the public order order, since it has not been enforced against those who have tried to impede by force legally organised processions? Does he recognise that the authorities in Northern Ireland know long before 21 days about a walk of the institution of which I have been a member for many years. The period of six days was proposed by the House and we have abided by it.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Chief Constable gave a very full account of the events of July and his part in them when he gave an extended interview on BBC radio to Mr. Barry Cowan. It is worth while looking at that. I am pretty sure that I ensured that a transcript was put in the Library, but if I did not, I shall see to it that one is put there.

In the interview, the Chief Constable made it absolutely clear that he took each decision in the light of his professional assessment of the likely disorder that would follow, and that, in particular, the second decision was taken because he could not guarantee that lives would not be lost in circumstances that he reasonably foresaw. I have said before and I repeat, although I do not want us to get into fighting the battles of the past, that I believe that the Chief Constable was right in each of those decisions. We must consider whether we can find a way by which such decisions can be taken in the absence of successful mediation that will be more widely acceptable. Time and again, the report comes back to the need for wide acceptability of mechanisms and procedures.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is it not remarkable that, on the report's principal recommendation, the Government offer no opinion to the House, but say, "We have not come to an opinion. We are going to consult further and then we will come to an opinion"? Is it not rather ridiculous that, on the principal recommendation, the Government are not in any way giving a voice or a lead to people within these islands on what they consider should be the best course of action to take? Are they not in fact dodging the issue and putting it on the back boiler? By virtue of the timetable as laid down by the Secretary of State, even with all the good will in the world from all the other parties to facilitate legislation, we will not have anything in place before, at the earliest, half-way through the marching season, when some of the most dangerous marches will have already taken place.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman's second proposition does not follow, and I am afraid that the first really shows that he is a subscriber to the Red Queen style of making decisions: verdict first, evidence afterwards.

Mr. McNamara

You are the Duke of Plaza-Toro!

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I thought that I had heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say. He carried some responsibilities for these affairs until he was relieved of them. I prefer to take the advantage of two months' consultation, which would, particularly with good will, leave time for any resulting legislation to be put in place during the coming summer, when the principally contentious marches are likely to occur.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The Secretary of State drew attention to the interview given by the former Chief Constable. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that some of us were surprised by the Chief Constable's attitude, but that we have listened with stunned amazement to statements today that the security forces should not be piggy in the middle? It was my impression that we maintained the army and police to be piggy in the middle to protect the law-abiding from the violent, armed conspiracy of the IRA. Is the Secretary of State not yet aware that, until he faces up to the fact that the IRA is committed to ensuring that there is no community agreement, and acts accordingly, he will be in constant trouble over marches? When will he live in the real world instead of the fantasy world that is detailed in the report?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not mind being criticised for what I have said, but I take mild exception to being criticised for what I have not said. I have not said that the security forces should not be piggy in the middle, as the hon. Gentleman put it. Of course it is their unpleasant and dangerous job, if hostilities break out, to keep the peace, and that means being in the middle. We have to discover the best means of ensuring that the security forces do not get engaged in occasions that can take place with enjoyment and peacefully, as the report points out.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Earlier today at Question Time, the Secretary of State, speaking of Bloody Sunday, said that we should not look back so much as look forward; but do not some of the most provocative and sectarian marches in Northern Ireland commemorate events of centuries ago? As for the IRA, did not Drumcree provide the propaganda that it so desperately requires, as did the terrible and tragic events of Bloody Sunday 25 years ago? Is not that also one of the lessons that we should learn?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

When one looks back at the events of last summer, one can see examples of atrocious behaviour among both sides of the community. A member of the RUC on duty at that time would not have distinguished much difference in unpleasantness between what was thrown by one side or the other. It is in the light of that reflection that we need to look forward. Of course we have to take account of the events of last summer: were it not for those events, this body might not have been asked to do the job that it has been given. We have the report and we should do our best to assess the merits of what it recommends and then take appropriate action.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Is it not the case that the report tells us nothing new? It tells us that 80 per cent. of society in Northern Ireland is tolerant of marches and that 80 per cent. is tolerant of protest. International protocols allow for that, anyway. Is it not the case that the 0.03 per cent. aggravation that occurred last year during marches was orchestrated by IRA ex-convicts, Mr. Brendan McKenna and Mr. Gerard Rice? Is not this tome a result of the action of those IRA felons? Would we not get everything out of proportion if we catered for such people in the manner that is suggested?

How will it help the Chief Constable if he disagrees with a recommendation of the commission and he defies the commission and goes to the Secretary of State, who agrees with it? For operational reasons, the Chief Constable would also have to defy the Secretary of State. Where will the Chief Constable's friends be? Will he not be all the more piggy in the middle? Should not we simplify the process by having registration and a code of conduct and letting him get on with the job that he is qualified to do?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That solution is one that can perfectly properly be suggested in the consultation period that I am offering. It is at one end of the spectrum. The hon. Gentleman questions whether the report tells us anything new, but that depends on what one has believed in the past. The trouble with objective truths is that people tend to resist the suggestion that they are true by reference to whichever person happens to be uttering them. The report in any event provides an independent voice to set out matters that we may have known already; at least it is independent and cannot be charged with partisan desires to distort.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

My father is buried in the Catholic graveyard at Drumcree, so I understand the situation there well. The Secretary of State will recall the meeting that I had with him on the evening of 12 July regarding the parade to be held the next day on the Ormeau road. I know that he will agree that the people of Northern Ireland, from both communities, and in some areas more than others, are deeply concerned about what might happen this summer.

I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said, and I appreciate his point about two months' consultation Like others, I would have thought that most of the consultation was already done, but I accept his point that he will consult party leaders and others. Surely a few weeks—perhaps until the end of February—would be long enough for such consultations, and a Bill could then be introduced to enact the necessary legislation. I believe that that is what the people of both communities would want, so that the matter can be settled before the general election.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Of course I recall the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I also recall his genuine concern and the helpful way in which he always approaches such matters. It is a matter of judgment: I believe that less than two months would not be realistic if one wants seriously to test opinion and to use the results in a helpful way. It is essential that whatever we do should carry the best prospect of acceptability, and that will be the case if we have a tightly focused, time-limited two-month period of consultation on that aspect of the report.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

As the Secretary of State is being criticised by those on both sides of the argument in Northern Ireland, does he feel that he has just about got it right? His response is not negative; it is to accept one limb of the argument—the seven principles in the conclusion—and to have time-limited discussions in connection with the second limb. Many might think that that was just about the right approach in the extremely difficult circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland.

Among the matters to be discussed in that eight-week period will be the triggering mechanism for specific marches to be examined. The report says that such examination is to be triggered by the police, the commission or the public. A great deal of attention needs to be paid to which groups of the public trigger the provisions and to whether they are genuinely representative, or bogus groups set up for the purpose.

Perhaps wider principles, such as a Bill of Rights guaranteeing human rights, should be thought about in the process, even if at a later stage.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The ideal is not to be criticised from both sides of the spectrum, but to be applauded from both sides. However, if one is so criticised, one can take some comfort from the possibility that one has got it right, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for inferring that he thinks that we have. The trigger is a difficult one. Someone suggested to me that there is a danger that one is simply creating a factory for grievances. We do not want to do that. The report makes it clear that in the vast majority of parades it would not be appropriate for the commission to be involved. One of the functions of the consultation period is to consider the appropriate trigger.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me if I refrain from applauding him on this occasion. May I remind him that Dr. North, who is not regarded as a radical legal thinker, lists in appendix 1 those persons and bodies providing submissions and contributions to the review team. The list runs to six pages. Is it the Secretary of State's intention to invite those persons and bodies to submit their considered opinions of the findings in the report? If that is not his intention and he intends to consult others, why will it take two months? Why not a month, as the hon. Member for Belfast. West (Dr. Hendron) suggested, so that legislation can pass through the House?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

We can argue whether it should be one month, six weeks, two months, three months or whatever. It is left at large and one has to make a judgment. Of course I do not intend to consult everyone who appears in appendix 1. I have said that it is right for public representatives and those who lead bodies that are directly interested in the subject to express their views on that aspect of the commission's report. There was a time when most people, not least in the Liberal party, thought that it was rather a good thing to take soundings. That is what I wish to do. I do not wish to incur the additional charge that I am adopting, hook, line and sinker and without even a couple of months of consultation a radical departure that also has certain constitutional connotations. If I did not adopt this course, it would be a charge properly brought.

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