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My Lords, I wish to speak on a topic that causes considerable interest and fear in Northern Ireland, which unfortunately was not dealt with in the gracious Speech. I refer to the inexplicable actions of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, a body that is answerable to the Northern Ireland Office. Before doing so, I want to acknowledge that my native land of Ulster is considerably different from the one beset by civil unrest of 20 years or more ago. For that I thank Members of this Parliament, past and present, for all their successful work in putting together a peace process that has made a major change to all who live there.
However, a few issues remain, the most serious of which is the activities of the Parades Commission. It was set up to remove from the police the responsibility of regulating parades—a job that it seems to do in an insensitive and ham-fisted way. I refer to one decision in particular as an example of the extremely bad handling of a situation. Last year, in a determination, the commission proposed a position that put the traditional Orange parade, which passes the Ardoyne interface in Belfast, into an impossible place. Let me explain: the Parades Commission received applications for two parades for the afternoon of
I should point out that for 150 years Belfast Orange lodges have held a parade in the city on
Lodges had followed the proposed route at the same time of day for many years and had been praised by the Parades Commission in earlier years for their good behaviour and stewarding. Their application asked for permission to parade up the Crumlin Road in the usual time, passing the Ardoyne shops at some time between 6 pm and 7.30 pm. They sought permission to be accompanied by one band. The Greater Ardoyne dissident republican group sought permission to hold a parade in the same area, partly over the same road, from 6 pm until 8 pm. It did not complete any applications to be accompanied by a band.
The hall of LOL 647 lies on the outskirts of Belfast and the only available and practical route to the centre of Belfast is via the Crumlin Road. The parade takes two hours and the first lodges arrive at the assembly point shortly after 12 noon and start to leave the assembly point to go home at 4 pm. The assembly point is at least five miles by road from Ardoyne. In order to comply with the Parades Commission ruling members of the lodge would have to forgo all of the family events in the assembly park and proceed on their way back to the Crumlin Road. They could not walk back in the time available and therefore would have to be transported to Ardoyne by car or bus.
The commission’s decision is seen by most people as very odd indeed. The problem is that it appears to be one-sided. There may be very good reasons for this determination but the reasoning is not available for us to consider. This failure to explain is a major part of the current rise in tension in the province. That is why there is so much confusion and misinformation.
As a result, I would like answers to the following questions. Why did the commission allow two mutually antagonistic parades on the same route within 90 minutes when it is generally agreed that the Ardoyne interface part of the parade was most contentious, bearing in mind that the commission praised the Orange Order in previous years as being well organised and peaceful? Could I be told by the commission why a republican parade should be allowed in a 50/50 interface area at almost the same time on a traditional route used by the Orange Order for over 150 years? The commission not only allowed the lodge to be accompanied by one band, which must remain mute, but did not specify how many bands the republicans, who had not applied for band permission, could bring with them.
I would like the transcripts of the commission’s meetings to be made public. This will allow us to know who attended the meetings and the reasons behind these decisions. I sought this information directly from the commission but was refused. For justice to be done it must be seen to be done and understood. Last year’s determination has set an unfortunate backdrop for this summer unless we can understand the commission’s reasoning and are not forced to view it simply as being anti the unionist section of the population. The solution may be for all determination decision meetings to be open to the public to attend. I call for a total rethink on the way the commission operates and even, if necessary, its replacement by a system which could be respected by both sides. I urge the Government not to discount the bad community feeling against the current commission. Things need to change.
I fully accept that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, with whom I enjoy a good working relationship and who will wind up the debate, is not in a position to answer these questions. While I will, of course, listen to his remarks on the total debate with great interest, I look forward to a detailed response to my questions from the Northern Ireland Office in due course.