HC Deb 29 October 1997 vol 299 cc883-5
1. Ms Corston

What steps are being taken to reduce tensions over parades in Northern Ireland. [12405]

9. Mr. Savidge

What steps are being taken to reduce tensions over parades in Northern Ireland. [12415]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

As my hon. Friends will know, the Public Processions etc. (Northern Ireland) Bill received its Second Reading in another place yesterday. The Bill is designed to tackle the difficulties that have surrounded the parades issue in recent years by encouraging local agreement and by giving the Parades Commission the power to make decisions and determinations where appropriate.

Ms Corston

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her fine record of achievement in just six months as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

As the current Parades Commission membership has been open to criticism, or been criticised, by some people on both sides of the community, will my right hon. Friend review its membership?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for her kind comments. The achievement has been the work of many people over the past six months. In the end, it is the Northern Ireland political parties that will make a difference in Northern Ireland and that will make progress or not. In previous months, they have shown, across the board, much courage in getting us to where we are.

I do not have any intention of changing the make-up of the Parades Commission. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Alistair Graham and his colleagues for the good job that they have done. Up to now, they have been doing their job with one hand tied behind their backs. With the legislation that is in the other place, we are giving the commission the powers that were recommended for it in the North report. That will enable it to carry out its role as North envisaged.

It is now up to both sides to work with the commission to try to reach the most peaceful solution to the parades issue in the next year. In the end, accommodation is the best way forward and accommodation will be reached by people working hand in hand with the commission.

Mr. Savidge

I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston). What impact will the legislation that my right hon. Friend has introduced have on more contentious parades such as Drumcree?

Marjorie Mowlam

Drumcree, in the end, is part of a broader issue. To deal with the Drumcrees,we will have to try to find mechanisms to build confidence between the two communities and to build greater trust and respect. The Parades Commission has been set up to try to address issues such as Drumcree: the commission will be able to consider individual parades and to determine an outcome, taking into account both the rights of people to march and their responsibilities towards the rights of others to be free from fear and intimidation.

The Bill is not anti-marching, but is an attempt to accommodate the two sides of the community in terms of reaching an accommodation that they can both live with. In the end, if we get to the determinant powers that the Bill will give to the Parades Commission, we shall have failed to reach an accommodation, which is the best way to move forward. The Parades Commission will be ready to do that in the months ahead when the legislation has passed through the House.

Mr. Maginnis

Does the Secretary of State have no second thoughts about her capitulation to the IRA-inspired and orchestrated pressure over the parades issue? Is not the truth the prediction of Dublin journalist and writer Ruth Dudley-Edwards, who suggested that, if the Orange Order sought to accommodate on this issue, pressure would be applied to the Royal British Legion and then to the Girls Brigade? Has Bellaghy not proved Ruth Dudley-Edwards to be correct? Does the Secretary of State intend that further capitulation on the Bellaghy issue will be, in effect, another tranche of the danegeld that she is obliged to pay to keep the IRA at the table of democracy?

Marjorie Mowlam

I obviously disagree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. There is no hidden agenda; there is just a straightforward attempt to listen to all sides after Drumcree last year. We said after that situation that we were committed to bringing in the Parades Commission and its statutory powers, and we said that we would listen to people. I listened to the hon. Gentleman's party, to Church groups and to parties across the board and tried to respond positively to all of them. In terms of the Bellaghy issue, I was with the Guides the day before yesterday.

We will treat all situations in a fair and open fashion. Part of the object of the Parades Commission is to let people see the open, transparent process that will be followed to reach a determination. It is important for people to remember that the commission is not anti one side or the other; it is trying to assist with an accommodation and to reach a conclusion about parades next year so that people do not have to live through the violence that has occurred previously.

Mr. Mallon

Does the Secretary of State agree that marches and parades that give offence, deny the rights of others and inject sectarian venom into the community should derive no credit or advantage from the fact that they are traditional and have traditionally poisoned relationships within Northern Ireland? Will she ensure that, in the new parades legislation, new Labour thinking on this issue will not be strangled by the old dogma of traditionality?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I reiterate that the basis of the Parades Commission is to acknowledge the rights of both communities—the right to march, to free assembly, to protest and to have freedom from fear and intimidation by others. That is the basic principle on which it will be based.

The Parades Commission has a broad set of criteria on which to reach conclusions. They take into account a host of recommendations and are not just limited as they have been in previous years. In that sense, I hope that the full statutory powers that the commission will be given if the legislation is passed through both Houses will provide broader criteria on which to reach a conclusion which, we hope, will be acceptable to more people.

Mr. MacKay

Surely the best way to reduce tensions, both in respect of parades and elsewhere in the Province, would be for the Secretary of State to state categorically today that we have absolutely no political prisoners in this country and that she will never again do the sort of shabby deal that she did with David Irvine of the Progressive Unionists, which would have led to a very evil murderer in Jason Campbell leaving prison in Scotland and going to the Province. [Interruption.]

Marjorie Mowlam

I will answer the question in relation to Jason Campbell. I apologise for any upset or hurt that was caused to the Scott family. I am sorry if it caused them any deeper pain than they already felt.

Jason Campbell claimed family ties in Northern Ireland. Like the previous Government, we have followed the policy of transferring prisoners closer to their families. The Conservative Government did that previously and we have continued to do that.

It subsequently became clear that the claims that Jason Campbell had made were false. The decision was then corrected and the transfer was refused. I believe that that was a correct decision. However, in line with the European convention, the Government remain committed to the principle of, where possible, transferring sentenced prisoners to places closer to their families.

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