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Northern Ireland

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 16th July 2013.

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Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 12:33 pm, 16th July 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about riots in Northern Ireland. I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning that shameful violence and in expressing our profound sympathy and support for police officers who have been injured. It is also a matter of the gravest concern that Mr Dodds was knocked unconscious as he tried to calm the situation on the streets of his constituency. I am certain that I speak for everyone here in wishing him well for a speedy recovery, and we all look forward to welcoming him back to his customary place very soon.

On Friday evening, following the annual 12 July parades, around 5,000 people gathered to protest against the Parades Commission determination not to allow three Orange lodges to return home past the nationalist Ardoyne area. This has been the scene of serious disorder in recent years, including shots fired at police by dissident republicans. Violence erupted as the crowd reached the police line on Woodvale road, preventing access to the route past the Ardoyne shop fronts. This has been followed by further disturbances and rioting on each night since then, mainly in the Woodvale parade/Twaddell avenue area, but also in the Newtownards road in east Belfast, Mount Vernon in north Belfast, Rathcoole in Newtownabbey, Portadown, and Ballyclare.

During these disturbances the police have come under attack from a variety of weapons, including fireworks, petrol bombs, bottles, stones, bits of masonry, iron bars and ceremonial swords. Last night, four blast bombs were thrown at police officers in east Belfast, as well as a pipe bomb improvised explosive device from Brompton park in the Ardoyne. Water cannon and AEP—attenuated energy projectile—plastic bullet rounds have been discharged on four successive nights, and 71 police officers have been injured. I am well aware of the anger felt by many people over the Parades Commission determination in relation to Ardoyne, but however strongly people feel, there can be absolutely no justification or excuse for the disgraceful behaviour we have seen in recent days. Attacks on the police are wholly unacceptable, and I condemn them without hesitation or reservation. It is also utterly disgraceful that the right hon. Member for Belfast North found himself, too, the victim of this violence.

There has been talk of attacks on British identity and culture in Northern Ireland. Well, the sort of behaviour that has been taking place in north Belfast does nothing to promote “Britishness” or the pro-Union cause; rather, it undermines it in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, it is hard to think of anything less British and less patriotic than wrapping yourself in a Union flag and going out to attack the people who are there to maintain the rule of law and protect the whole community.

So now it is the responsibility of everyone with influence, including the Orange Order, community leaders and politicians, to do all we can to defuse tensions and calm the situation. We need temperate language over the coming days. I am afraid that the Orange Order needs to reflect carefully on its role in encouraging mass protests on Friday in a highly volatile situation without the careful planning, stewarding and engagement with the police that is so important for keeping people safe when big crowds gather together. While the Orange Order’s announcement of the suspension of its protests was welcome, it is now time for it to call them off completely.

I would like to pay tribute to the outstanding work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland over recent days. The officers have demonstrated fortitude, determination and courage in defending the rule of law. They put their own safety on the line in the face of violent attacks, and they deserve our utmost praise, support and thanks, as do the police officers from Great Britain who provided mutual aid support. I would like to commend the leadership of Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Justice Minister David Ford. I know that meticulous planning took place to ensure that everything possible was done to try to keep people safe over the weekend of 12 July, including bringing approximately 1,000 mutual aid officers from Great Britain.

Of the 4,000 or so parades that take place annually in Northern Ireland, the vast majority pass off without major problems, including hundreds on 12 July. But any rioting is unacceptable, not least because it undermines efforts to secure economic recovery for Northern Ireland and because it makes competing in the global race for jobs and investment that much more difficult.

The way forward has to be through dialogue to find sustainable local solutions to contentious parades, as has been the case, for example, in Derry/Londonderry. I welcomed the talks that took place between members of the Orange Order and Ardoyne residents before the Parades Commission determination. I know how difficult this will be after what has happened, but I believe it is vital that that local dialogue continues. I also welcome the inclusion of parading in the remit of the Executive’s all-party working group and the appointment of the distinguished US former envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, to chair it. The Government have always made it clear that we are open to a devolved solution if one can be found, but in the meantime we will not tolerate lawlessness on the streets of Belfast any more than we would in any other UK city.

Last week in this Chamber, issues were raised regarding my powers in relation to Parades Commission determinations. Those powers are set out in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. Section 9 states that I can review a determination made by the Parades Commission only following a request by the Chief Constable. The reason he has not made such a request is that at all times he has been confident that the officers under his command can police the situation. I fully share that confidence.

To those on the streets over recent days taking part in this violence, I say this: so far 60 arrests have been made and emergency courts were sitting at Laganside on Sunday to accelerate the criminal justice process, but that is just the start. No stone will be left unturned in building the case needed for more arrests and more criminal convictions. Those who engage in so-called recreational rioting and attacks on police officers can expect to face the full force of the law.

I am confident that for some that will mean that the next 12 July holiday will be spent not out in the sunshine following the parades, but locked up in prison living with the consequences of the crimes they have committed. I commend this statement to the House.