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Mr Gerry Kelly has been given leave to make a statement on the Ardoyne/Twaddell resolution, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24.
If Members wish to be called, they should rise in their places and continue to do so. All Members called will have up to three minutes to speak on the subject. I remind Members that I will not take any points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business has been finished.
I am glad, Mr Speaker, that you accepted that, over the weekend, something quite significant happened that is worth a few moments of our time to contemplate.
After many years of disputes around the Crumlin/Ardoyne/Twaddell area, an agreement was signed that allowed the Twaddell camp to be dismantled and a moratorium to be put in, and for the Orange Order to complete its return parade from 2013. The agreement was long sought after. The issues surrounding the disputes affected not only everybody in the area but community relations. The big story is the fact that there was agreement, even though people had thought that this was an intractable problem, and there could be no agreement. The agreement also allows a conversation to expand beyond the issue of parades, which had entered into every conversation, whether on regeneration, housing or bringing tourists or jobs into the area. Parades came into the middle of every conversation. Now, with where we are, we have a great platform for moving forward.
We had another parade on Friday night and a protest on Saturday morning, which, I am glad to say, was also peaceful. However, I have to mention some of the scenes that are now in the media around Father Gary Donegan, who is a highly respected priest in the area. He is respected not only as a priest but as someone who has been involved in peace and reconciliation work over a long period. Some of the people who gave him such abuse have a political agenda. Some of the key figures in the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC) are also involved in other anti-peace-process political parties, and you cannot fool people on the ground when they know exactly whom they are dealing with in all this.
Father Donegan should not have taken that abuse. I took some abuse myself, but I am a politician and that is what politicians are here for: to take whatever criticisms are thrown at us in whatever way. We should be able to take it. However, to focus attention on Father Gary Donegan is a disgrace. The same man has been up in the area every night for the past two and a half years, trying to make sure that no more young people got caught up and entered the criminal justice system.
Let me say a little more. Gary Donegan, as far as I am concerned, is the perfect image of a worker priest. I am glad —
I join Mr Kelly in welcoming the peaceful outcome of the Ardoyne/Twaddell impasse. It is proof, if ever it were needed, that dialogue and accommodation can bring us forward out of the abyss.
I congratulate the people who helped to facilitate the arrangement. They worked tirelessly behind the scenes, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing the dispute to an end. We have also to congratulate those involved in the dispute for going that extra step forward and coming away from it. I particularly pay tribute to the loyal Orange Order, which took that extra step and stretched itself to find a way out of this. I am not a member of the Orange Order, but I can see what it has had to do to get to where we are today. In the same way, I can look at the Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA), which had to deal with considerable hostility in coming to where it now is. We have to be thankful that it showed the courage to get to where it is. It is interesting that the agreement was brought about, despite the Parades Commission. This group came together; the Parades Commission did not facilitate this agreement.
There were some pretty awful scenes, and, again, I agree with Mr Kelly about Father Gary Donegan, who showed incredible courage and leadership when he was receiving verbal abuse, which looked like it nearly bordered on physical abuse.
We must look to people like that who stand up and take very difficult decisions. We have moved forward but we have a way to go. We in the House should now look at how we can make the situation better in Ardoyne, Twaddell and possibly other places. That is for the future, but I have to take this moment to commend the people who brought about the peaceful resolution.
Like others, I welcome the fact that the Orange brethren and the bands were able to return home to Ligoniel on Saturday and complete their parade. The Crumlin Road is one of the main arterial routes from the Ligoniel/Ballysillan area down into the city centre. It is a tragedy that the community around there and, indeed, in the much wider area around north Belfast has had to endure, over a number of years, the results of what was originally a bizarre, ludicrous, unwarranted decision by the Parades Commission to prevent the brethren from returning on a Twelfth evening. It is a road that has been used by Orange brethren, bands and lodges over many years — in fact, there are records going back well over 100 years — because it is the main road down into the city centre.
The events on Saturday were, indeed, peaceful, and that is to be welcomed. I am glad that the brethren were able to return home. I join others in saying that the behaviour of the GARC people on Saturday — some of them, in particular — was, quite frankly, appalling. You saw their hatred — raw, naked hatred — and it is very hard to comprehend. We saw that hatred directed towards, obviously, those in the parade: the brethren from the three lodges and the bands. We also saw hatred that was not sectarian hatred but the outworking of sectarian hatred, in that they turned on the local priest, Father Gary Donegan. The scenes were really quite shocking. That says something, I think, about the hatred that needs to be addressed in our society. You can have accommodations and work through many things, but, ultimately, we need to get to the bottom of rooting out and addressing that sort of raw sectarian hatred, because it finds its expression not just in opposition to parades but in attacks on Orange halls and in the demonisation of the Orange Order, which has been going on for many years. Let us take the opportunity now to address those issues and tackle the hatred that drives a lot of that. Hopefully, we can then move forward to a shared and better future in which roads such as the Crumlin Road are truly shared.
A lot of people entered the weekend with a sense of nervousness and anxiety. Certainly, the SDLP is pleased that, on Friday night and Saturday morning, everything passed off peacefully. The three lodges, from what I could see, adhered fully to the Parades Commission's determination, the illegal camp was very swiftly dismantled thereafter, and the protest was peaceful. However, as many Members pointed out, there was a deeply disturbing moment when Father Gary Donegan was confronted by a number of very angry protesters. What I witnessed was appalling, vile and frightening. I tried to intervene twice because I was truly appalled at what I was seeing. I can assure the House that Father Gary Donegan then, in the heat of that moment, and subsequently, has responded with nothing but dignity, and you would expect nothing less.
The first key milestone of the agreement was tested and passed on Saturday. All efforts must now focus on ensuring that the remainder of it is adhered to by all sides. It is right to acknowledge that there is a sense of nervousness about the level of expectation that perhaps both sides have for the outcome of the process and, in particular, the community forum that is a critical element of it. However, while we in the SDLP acknowledge — it is important to do so — the anxieties that people might have, we are very hopeful that north Belfast is entering a new era and that we can have a clear focus on the issues that are really damaging people's lives, including mental health and training and employment opportunities, to name but a few. It is important that we acknowledge that people with some of those anxieties and that nervousness can be reassured somewhat by the fact that copies of the agreement have been provided to our First Minister and our deputy First Minister, the British and the Irish Governments, the Parades Commission and the PSNI. Hopefully, with them acting as guarantors, that will help to allay some people's fears, and we will have seen the last of worries, anxieties and potential trouble when it comes to contentious parades in my constituency of North Belfast.
Like others, I welcome the agreement and the resolution of this long-running dispute. I pay tribute to the loyal orders and the Crumlin and Ardoyne Residents Association for, dare I say it, finally seeing good sense after two and a half years and, I believe, something over £20 million of expenditure. There were major sensitivities on both sides; we have to acknowledge that. An agreement that took a long time to come to fruition is better than no agreement at all.
I also commend the police operation; I do not think that anybody has mentioned the police yet. The PSNI has held a line up there nightly for all that time. Sometimes it erupted, and sometimes it did not, but the cost of it and the resources that the police had to put into policing the area over that time have been massive. They dealt with it with their normal restraint and dignity and with respect for human rights and the tensions on both sides.
It has been quite a good summer, relatively speaking, for parading. I hope that, as a result of this agreement, as others said, there may be an opportunity now to move forward to discuss these things in an atmosphere of calm and cooperation rather than of stand off. I certainly hope so. Like others, I utterly condemn the treatment of Father Gary Donegan. This is a man who, as others said, has spent night after night and day after day trying to, as I understand it, keep young people in particular away from trouble and from perhaps getting a record that they should not have. He deserves better than to be confronted by a group of people abusing him in those circumstances. I believe that the 'Sunday Life' reporter Chris Woodhouse was roundly abused as well but for what reason I am not aware. As Mr Kelly said in introducing the matter, we are politicians; we have to put up with this. I do not believe that a priest or a reporter should have to suffer that kind of abuse, and I am glad to hear it being condemned by all sides.
I am encouraged to hear today that everyone has had an opportunity to give support to the agreement. Indeed, many did last week, and that was greatly appreciated, particularly by CARA and some other residents. It is important that, when we use this opportunity to speak in the Assembly, we speak with one voice, particularly on such an important issue. I think that, for every political representative, or most of them, despite their best efforts to get resources, facilities and services to their constituents in North Belfast over the last few years, this has been an issue that has been crying out for resolution. It is also an issue that has been crying out for leadership. I commend CARA and, indeed, the loyal orders for using that opportunity and leadership to come to a resolution that we all now know about in its public form. Residents in Twaddell Avenue and in Mountainview, Ardoyne and the Dales, as well as businesses, have had their quality of life greatly impacted by nightly and weekly parades. People going about their business and getting on with their lives were greatly impacted.
For me, the message is that we all need to support resolution where that is possible. In order to provide that sort of leadership, even this afternoon, we must use softer words. Nelson spoke about hatred but his language could have been a bit softer when he joined in with the rest of us. I am delighted that he is supporting the agreement but he should support it without conditions and without making points. It is a community that we all represent and we all have interests in but we all need to show leadership and reach out to one another.
We have political and ideological difficulties, but that is what this place is for. We need to make sure that our communities, our streets and our children and grandchildren — ours, not mine or yours — are left a legacy that is far better than the one we had. How do we do that? We confront what happened on Saturday. Should it be against Father Gary Donegan, or Brian who was with him or anybody else, even some of the people with GARC, who have the right to protest, will back off when they see that behaviour.