My Lords, I offer sincere apologies to the Government Front Bench for not being here at the opening of the debate. I am having a difficult day. I have not spoken here for two years, deliberately, because over that period and before I have had a number of difficulties with a heart condition, including arrhythmia, which place me in a rather difficult position. I have had a very difficult day today, to be quite honest. A bit like my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, I had my notes for today neatly typed out on my machine at home, but I am here and everything has been hacked into so I have been trying to recreate what I have to say. I would like your Lordships’ indulgence and understanding this evening. Earlier today, I nearly scratched from speaking because I felt that bad. I am not quite in the position that I would like to be in, but I want to talk about a topic that is of interest to me.
One of the important organisations in Northern Ireland, which leaves a tremendous impression—whether it is a good impression or another thing—is the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. It is wholly unaccountable to either the courts or to Parliament, yet it is publicly funded, making quasi-judicial decisions enforceable by the courts and police. It is under no obligation to give reasons for its decisions or even to explain how they were made. It is under no obligation to keep or maintain records of decisions. Attendance of commissioners at decision-making and other meetings is not recorded or published. A body applying for permission to parade is not allowed to know the reason for the complaint made against it. Consequently, a defendant cannot defend themselves because they do not know what the complaint against them is.
I will look at a few well-documented cases. Police reports indicate that during the Ardoyne difficulties in Belfast, which we have all heard of, the paraders did not cause any of the violence in any year and they conformed to all the rules, regulations and restrictions put upon them by the Parades Commission. It would appear that the commission, in banning the peaceful parades for a number of years, is not only giving in to violent protest but even condoning or rewarding such violence. One could claim that it is criminally aiding and abetting the use of violence to prevent a lawful peaceful assembly. This would constitute a criminal conspiracy in itself by being in violation of the state’s duty to uphold the right of peaceful assembly, which is in the European Convention on Human Rights.
To underline, we in Northern Ireland have, funded by the taxpayer, a quasi-judicial body that is not answerable to the courts, Parliament or our Assembly, yet it can have a considerable impact on day-to-day affairs. What is urgently required is a reconstruction of the commission to take account of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, both of which the United Kingdom has signed up to. The Belfast agreement is supposed to uphold these rights. Instead, we find that one section of the community has had its fundamental rights taken away. I thank your Lordships for your brief and kind attention.