HC Deb 17 June 1998 vol 314 cc353-5
7. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

What steps are being taken to reduce tensions over parades in Northern Ireland. [44746]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 established an independent body, the Parades Commission, with the statutory responsibility of encouraging and facilitating local accommodation on contentious parades. I welcome the acceptance by the loyal orders of the commission's determination to reroute the tour of the north parade, scheduled for this Friday. Given that acceptance, there can be no excuse whatever for any outbreak of violence this weekend or thereafter.

Helen Jones

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Parades Commission on its work so far and on its decisions which, as the whole House will agree, have been both transparent and fair? Will he do all that he can to ensure that all those involved in parades, both marchers and protesters, reach an accommodation and accept the commission's decisions, so that in future, we may avoid the disorder that has occurred so often in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend makes her point very well. We should always recognise how difficult a task the commission faces. We congratulate it on its efforts to date and wish it well in its future determinations. We all recognise the full impact of any outbreak of violence such as we have witnessed in previous years and of the battle of the marching season, which damages not only the economic health and future well-being of Northern Ireland, but the psychological and physical health of everyone who lives there.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

In a television interview on 7 April, the transcript of which is fully available, the Chief Constable of the RUC made it clear that, even if the Parades Commission decided against the Orange Order marching down the Garvaghy road, he would allow the march to go through if the Orange Order then amassed the number of people that it had in previous years to force that march through. In that case, what future would the commission have, especially on the sensitive Ormeau road and Drumcree parades?

Mr. Ingram

The Chief Constable does not have the power to overturn the legal determination of the commission, but the police have the power to take whatever action is necessary on the day to preserve life and property. Its determination would still stand, on the basis of its best endeavours to resolve issues in respect of the parade or march that it was considering.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Further to the previous question, if the Parades Commission decided that the Drumcree march should not return to Portadown along the Garvaghy road, but by some different route, would the RUC enforce that decision and ensure that peace reigned throughout the area during that weekend?

Mr. Ingram

The best thing that all of us can do is hope that there is no repetition of what has happened in previous years, whether the march is allowed to go ahead or not. The commission has a very difficult job to do, and it is not for me or for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to prejudge what it will do in respect of any application for the march at Drumcree. The matter rests with the commission, and other powers rest with the Chief Constable to deal with public disorder on the day, should it arise.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Does the Minister agree that the best single action that could be taken to reduce tension over parades in Northern Ireland would be for the concerned residents group on the Garvaghy road to withdraw its opposition to the march? Will he acknowledge the march's importance to members of the Unionist community? To them, it shows tolerance of their rights and their culture.

Mr. Ingram

I would not want to be accused of lecturing the hon. Gentleman, but the best help that he could give would be to come round behind the Good Friday agreement and give every support to what the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland expressed through the ballot box on 22 May. Clearly, we recognise the rights of those who want to march, and the legal rights of those who may want to protest against that. I hope that things can be done peacefully, through reconciliation, with both sides talking to the Parades Commission to find the best answers, in respect of not only the Drumcree parade, but subsequent parades over the coming months.