Marches (Disorder)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10 September 2019.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government, in light of recent sectarian violence, what action it proposes to prevent disorder at future marches. (S5T-01762)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I first want to commend Police Scotland for the robust operation that it delivered on Saturday in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the chamber in wishing the officer who was injured by a pyrotechnic device a speedy recovery. The police have my full backing in identifying and prosecuting the irresponsible individual who threw the dangerous device.

The events of the past two weekends have clearly demonstrated that sectarian violence is not a thing of the past. We have seen the right to parade peacefully and to counter-demonstrate, which are both perfectly legal and important elements of a democracy that values free speech, being abused by those who are intent on denying others a voice so that they can indulge in violent, disorderly and offensive behaviour. The right to free expression does not give people the right to intimidate communities.

I can safely say that the vast majority of the citizens of Glasgow view the sectarian violence stemming from those marches as a stain on the city’s reputation. That is why I have been working with Glasgow City Council and Police Scotland to find a way forward that will prevent the recent scenes from happening again. There is no simple solution, and all the options, including legislative ones, are firmly on the table. The council is determined to reduce the number of marches, and I support it in that aim.

I also remain committed to tackling sectarianism and bigotry. We will continue to invest in education work, building on our unprecedented investment of £14 million in that respect since 2012. We must work together to eradicate sectarian violence once and for all. Of course, we are open to considering all proposals from across the chamber.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary mentioned the council’s desire to reduce the number of marches. As he may know, 14 are planned for the rest of this month. I understand that one of those is a republican march, two are on other subjects altogether and the rest are all Orange or Orange related. Does the council have the power to reduce the number of marches, or would that require some change?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

That is a helpful question. That issue was the focus of our conversation on Thursday. Where the council feels that it has the legislative powers, it will use them and act. I told the council that, where it feels that it does not have such powers, the Government would be open to a conversation on that, and I think that the Parliament should be, too.

Frankly, it frustrates me quite a lot that we are having to talk about legislation to tackle disorder that is committed in 2019 in a multicultural city such as Glasgow by grown men who are fighting the battles of centuries gone by. The fact that we have to think about legislating to prevent those individuals from committing that disorder is pretty depressing.

I assure John Mason that, where the council feels that there is a need for further legislative options to be explored, I have given it an undertaking that we will do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Three members want to ask supplementary questions. Can we have short questions, please?

Photo of Adam Tomkins Adam Tomkins Conservative

I agree with everything that the cabinet secretary said in his response to the questions from John Mason. As I understand it, Glasgow City Council is reviewing the procedures by which it permits marches in our city, which I welcome. What practical support is the Scottish Government offering Glasgow City Council in that regard?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Before the cabinet secretary answers, I point out that I have realised that Mr Mason had another question. I will let you have one at the very end, Mr Mason.

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Adam Tomkins for the question and for the tone in which he asked it. We have told Glasgow City Council that we will help in any way that we can with the review. Adam Tomkins makes an important point. Legislation is one way that the Government can assist, but it can help in many other ways. For example, it is currently exploring whether it could play a role in funding mediation or doing development work to bring the various parties together to agree a rationale for reducing the number of marches. Those are some ways in which the Government might give practical support.

I assure Mr Tomkins that if there is a request from Glasgow City Council for anything further that the Government could do, its leader will be knocking at a very open door.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the events in Glasgow have left many people feeling that we are going backwards and becoming less tolerant and more divided? Does he also agree that there is no place for hatred on our streets, no matter where it comes from or who it is directed towards? We need to bring people together and ask them to reach out across divides. Will the cabinet secretary t herefore encourage Glasgow City Council to reinstate the previously established stakeholders group?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Anas Sarwar for his question and the way in which he asked it. Any member in the chamber will recognise the work that he has personally done in bridging the divide between communities in which there can often be tension and in attempting to eradicate hate. I wish that to be recognised on the record.

On Mr Sarwar’s substantive point about encouraging Glasgow City Council, I say that I will leave it to the council to come up with what it thinks are solutions. I know that many people will have their own views on those. The Government should also consider the proposals that Anas Sarwar has mentioned—indeed, it will be open minded to any others that might come from across the chamber. The council should be similarly open minded towards listening to ideas from across the political spectrum.

Mr Sarwar is absolutely right. My constituents in Govan, who were affected by the events a week past on Friday, have told me that they felt that it was not safe for them to go outside their houses. That is not acceptable in 2019.

We have a collective desire, need for and interest in eradicating such hatred from our streets. Frankly, the citizens of Glasgow who have spoken to me have tolerated such marches for many a year, but they have just had enough. Glasgow City Council’s desire to reduce the number of marches is a pretty decent place to start on that endeavour, and it will certainly have the Government’s support.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

There is a balance to be struck between promoting and protecting freedom of speech and ensuring that local communities do not have their day-to-day lives disrupted. I ask the cabinet secretary whether consideration has been given to consolidating the number of marches. For example, if one organisation has a number of applications over a calendar period, could they be merged into one march, or a number of them, in order to reduce the number that take place and so minimise disruption to local areas?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank James Kelly for his suggestion. In the same vein as I answered the previous question, I say to him that I think that we should look at all proposals. I assure him that part of the discussion that the Government had with Glasgow City Council was about whether it could rationalise, and therefore reduce, the number of marches that take place. The challenge is that applications often come in from different organisations. For example, the Apprentice Boys of Derry is a very different organisation from the main Orange order whose march takes place on or around 12 July each year. Although their marches might both be grouped under the umbrella term of “loyalist” parades, each organisation will make an individual application. Adam Tomkins’s suggestion about engaging with and possibly mediating between such groups is one strand that the Government should explore.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Would be helpful if we were to have a united front in the Parliament and among the relevant spokespeople from all the parties in acting on this issue, which is a sensitive one?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

If this topical question has demonstrated anything, it is that we have the ability to have a mature discussion across the chamber about such issues. We all want to see a reduction in the number of such marches while, of course, protecting people’s rights to freedom of speech and of assembly. When I replied to James Kelly, it was an oversight on my part not to have welcomed him to his justice role.

I will take up John Mason’s suggestion and invite the justice spokespeople from all parties across the chamber to have a conversation about how we might assist local authorities in dealing with the problem and whether that might involve the passing of legislation or other measures.