HL Deb 28 October 1997 vol 582 cc1003-25

4.39 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I believe that I can speak for other noble Lords who plan to speak in the Northern Ireland debate today by saying that we in no way resent the injection of the Statement and the subsequent exchanges on Commonwealth affairs, given the fact that we in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned and interested in the well being of the Commonwealth in general.

I, too, should like to offer my sincere congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, on his impressive maiden speech; and, indeed, on his first speech from the Dispatch Box. That is an example of speedy promotion which comes as no great surprise to any of us who had the great privilege of working with the noble Lord during his very beneficial service in Northern Ireland. I should also like to point out that we are encouraged by the presence today of at least two former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and of several Ministers who served in the Province.

With the intention of setting the debate and the Bill in context, perhaps I may mention that on 31st August, 1994, the day when the IRA declared—and it is worthwhile noting what was said— a cessation of military operations", it was clear to me that other activities would continue. That afternoon, on my way to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street, I was asked by at least two of the 100 journalists there present what the next steps would be. I replied that I expected the terrorists would revert to the crowd scenes, which had served them so effectively some 25 years earlier. Recently Mr. Adams publicly explained that he and his colleagues had devoted two years to organising what they and other people term as, "concerned citizens groups", which caused serious disruption especially in 1996.

As the Minister and the Liberal spokesman have said, the 1997 phase plainly failed because the organisers of traditional processions refused to play the enemy game. That avoidance of the traps, particularly in the 24 to 48 hours before 12th July of this year, threw the IRA/Sinn Fein into such confusion that, in a desperate attempt to regain the high moral ground, they called the current ceasefire. I do not complain about that; indeed, it is a bonus for everyone. I have outlined the background because in the remaining six weeks of the so-called marching season—that is, from the 12th July to the end of August—the entire situation was transformed and, as a result, the Province was, and is, well on the road to normality. In a sense that confirmed the view of the previous government that heavy handed legislation might not be the wisest course. They may have had in mind the Americanism, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". So I would absolve the previous Secretary of State of accusations of delay in such matters. I believe that he was wise to wait and see how the so-called marching season progressed.

When I accepted an invitation to tender my views to Dr. North and his review body, I advised against hasty measures of a permanent nature, explaining that the IRA always orchestrated a given target until success was achieved and then simply moved on to another target. I have to say with a great deal of sadness and regret that the IRA has now identified such a fresh target in the Province—the widespread Royal British Legion parades on Remembrance Sunday, when, like many of your Lordships, I shall be participating as a branch chairman in a truly cross-community, non-sectarian tribute which has been observed for 75 years. Over recent weeks certain bodies, not far removed from the so-called, "concerned citizens", have been going around expressing concern and opposition to those customary observances. For example, seeking assurances that Royal British Legion standards bearing a small element of the national flag in one corner should not be displayed; and, further, that no regimental colours or, indeed, Naval or Royal Airforce Ensigns should be carried.

There could be no doubt that this marks the beginning of a new phase of IRA activity which could not possibly have been foreseen by the North review body. Given the fact that the Royal British Legion is a United Kingdom organisation, I have to say that Her Majesty's Government should not ignore the possibility of an extension of those activities to England, Scotland and Wales of the IRA turning crowd scene tactics to Great Britain. I hope that the Minister will consider expanding and extending the Bill to cover the whole of the United Kingdom. The fact that such powers were on the statute books would be a real deterrent to any IRA sub-contractors planning various forms of disruption in Great Britain, based as they would be on the existing networks in this country which have sustained the bombing campaign far beyond Northern Ireland.

With the Committee stage of the Bill ahead of us, it is unnecessary to go into detail on the various clauses. Therefore, I shall confine my remarks to what I believe are the underlying issues. We shall need to look carefully at Clause 2 which gives the commission two apparently conflicting remits. First, it gives the commission a mediation role; and, secondly, it gives the commission power to issue determinations, thus taking over from the police in decision making. We clearly need to study that conflict very carefully.

There is a further inconsistency between Clauses 7 and 14 in the matter of penalties in regard to failure to comply with the law. When we come to the Committee stage, surely we ought to try to achieve a real balance between those who deliberately break the law and those who do their best to comply with it but may have found it difficult in certain circumstances to do so. Clause 7 also requires the giving of 28 days' notice, which will not greatly affect traditional parades because most of them are organised at least 12 months in advance. However, I wonder whether there is an infringement of civil liberties implicit in the clause. To me the only safeguard resides in subsection (5)(b) which provides for an exemption of a "class", specified in an order made by the Secretary of State". I have to ask: would a procession arising from a sudden industrial dispute be specifically exempted on a given day, and how much notice of that event would be required? Further, how could that loophole prevent exploitation by, for example, a paramilitary body?

I believe that there is also need for a rethink on Clause 8, subsections (1) and (2), which give powers to the commission to issue determinations. Presumably those determinations will have to be enforced by the police. The police will therefore be exposed to censure, first, by the news industry and then, to some extent, by sections of the public who will misunderstand the real situation and the real powers of the commission. I have one suggestion which your Lordships may like to consider between now and Committee. Might it not be possible for two or three members of the deciding body—that is to say, the commission—to be physically present at the limited number of predictable flashpoints to make it clear that the decisions were theirs and to explain to television teams on the spot that the police had no discretion in the matter?

Finally, might it be possible to have clear guidance on the input of the Irish Government? That is not a hypothetical question because Irish Government Ministers have in the past stated—and, on occasions, boasted—that they have applied pressure on Her Majesty's Government in regard to decisions made on various processions. Until now that was the only identifiable channel between Dublin Ministers and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. However, it would be safe to assume that there could have been day to day communication via the joint secretariat, and no doubt that occurred.

However, this Bill alters the situation considerably. The key body in this whole operation is now the new commission which will in practice take the important decisions. Will the commission be subjected to direct pressure from the Irish Government or any other western government, or will all foreign influence be brought to bear on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who might then have difficulty in transmitting the foreign representations and who might even have difficulty in disclosing the source of the representations? That is an important matter. Given the dedication of the present Government to the principle of open government, it would seem consistent to apply that principle—a principle which, I am convinced, would do much to remove suspicion and more than anything else would constitute a confidence-building step and would be welcomed as such.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the Northern Ireland representatives in this House, who formerly were elected representatives for many years, still carry with them the baggage of their cultural identities. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Cope, to the Opposition Benches. He and I were Members of another place. He will know that in this House opinions are held but not with the same enthusiasm—for want of a better word—as those held by elected representatives who have to fight the next election. I am certain that the noble Lord will consider that everyone speaks sincerely in this House.

This legislation which has been brought before the House is controversial. As I have already said, we carry the baggage of our experiences in Northern Ireland over many years. The noble Lord who has just spoken and I are perhaps the two oldest former Northern Ireland elected representatives. I remember vividly a procession on the Longstone Road that was led by a Northern Ireland Cabinet Minister. It was one of the most contentious and controversial marches that took place at that time. That Northern Ireland Cabinet Minister, a Minister of home affairs who was in charge of law and order in Northern Ireland, led that unionist march much to the chagrin, fear and loathing of the minority community who lived in that area. I am happy to say that that Minister began, over many years, to realise that such demonstrations of his authority and superiority at that time were no longer relevant. Indeed he became a colleague of mine at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement. I refer to Brian Faulkner. Therefore changes have taken place but at that time that march engendered fear. People living in Northern Ireland, particularly those of my age, still carry memories of that march.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, spoke of human rights and liberties. I remember sitting in the old Stormont Parliament in 1953. At that time the unionist government, which represented the overwhelming unionist majority, brought to the statute book in Northern Ireland one of the most draconian, apartheid Acts of Parliament ever promulgated in Northern Ireland—the flags and emblems Bill. That Bill gave the unionists in Northern Ireland every right to march wherever and whenever they wanted. At the same time the Bill placed restrictions on the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that he thought the civil rights movement began in 1969. However, that is not the case. I was there when it began in 1964 in the general election of that year. I was an agent in West Belfast. One of the candidates, Liam MacMillan, was a Republican candidate. On his platform there was an Irish tricolour to establish his cultural identity. The Reverend Ian Paisley was just entering the political arena at that time and he demanded that the flag be taken out of the election headquarters. He said that if that was not done, he would lead a march of 10,000 Protestants to remove the flag from the election headquarters. I was present when the police arrived. They broke into the premises in a vicious manner and removed the flag. That flag was a symbol of a candidate's cultural identity. That action led to a week's vicious rioting on the Falls Road in West Belfast. At that time West Belfast was not a Republican ghetto. Liam MacMillan, who was subsequently assassinated, only polled 3,000 votes at that election. There were only 3,000 Republican votes in West Belfast at that time, and yet the special powers Act was used to push through some most contentious legislation.

We still carry memories of those marches and of the people involved in them. It has been said that of the 3,000 marches that occur at the moment in Northern Ireland only 20 or 30 are contentious. That is quite true. I have anxieties about the Concerned Residents' Association, some members of which are genuine but some are bogus. Some of them are manipulated by Sinn Fein and the IRA. Their actions are not directed to help the interests of residents and tenants. Their actions are dictated by political objectives. However, most of the marches in Northern Ireland have taken place for many years and are non-contentious.

I should like to welcome the legislation that we are discussing, but I have reservations as to whether it will be effective. The commission may sit and perform its functions, but at the end of the day the RUC will have to police all the demonstrations. The RUC will be the body in the middle, as it has been for many years.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, expressed some reservations about Clause 3 of the Bill. I have many reservations about that clause. I do not understand why it was introduced at the last minute. The words "Public Processions etc." on the front of the Bill are a reference to the provisions of Clause 3. The Bill seeks to take account of expressions of cultural identity of the people of Northern Ireland. I wish to discuss further some of these cultural expressions. In unionist Protestant areas there are kerbstones painted red, white and blue, but in other areas kerbstones are painted green, white and orange. There are some gable walls depicting William crossing the Boyne and other gable walls depicting the Pope and the Virgin Mary. There are some gable walls depicting IRA volunteers and other gable walls depicting UVF volunteers. These are all expressions of the cultural identity of those areas. Are we to see members of the commission going from kerbstone to kerbstone, from gable to gable and from flagpole to flagpole giving their impressions of these items? The whole stance of Clause 3 is ludicrous. I am sure that by the time this Bill leaves this House that will have been recognised.

I believe that the commission's report was drawn up in its entirety by Dr. North. It pointed to the divisions which exist between the two cultures in Northern Ireland. When the recommendations of the commission start to bite, the marching season in Northern Ireland will be starting. That will be in March or April of next year. The present peace talks are scheduled to finish about May of next year. If there is a breakdown in the peace talks, if there is no resolution of the conflict which now exists and there is no attempt to bring about a power sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland which will satisfy the interests of everyone, this legislation will be absolutely worthless. In the event of a breakdown in the peace talks, the legislation will not be worth the paper it is written on. In these debates I try my damnedest to exude some optimism. However, given my experience of Northern Ireland I believe that that optimism is sometimes unduly placed.

The Bill refers to public expressions of culture identity, and states that these must be carried out in daylight. One cannot paint kerbstones in the dark. One cannot draw murals of King William, the Pope, or anyone else in the dark. So they will have to be done in daylight. Will a member of the commission watch? If he watches King Billy being painted on a gable wall, and makes any objection I would not lay too much money on his survival. We have to look at the reality of the situation.

We are still living with the past, with the flag and emblems legislation which created such a mindset among the minority in Northern Ireland. The incoming Labour Party abolished that legislation in 1966, and certainly not before its time. However, the existence of that Act in Northern Ireland created in the minds of the majority community the concept that, "We are the masters. We have the Government behind us. We will decide where we will march. But, more importantly, we will decide where you will not march". I talk only of the 50 years about which I can recall. It will be very difficult for all those involved in this legislation to get over that past history.

I believe that the personnel on the commission are responsible people. But they will have to be very aware of the sensitivity of both communities and must not appear to ban one community from marching, and then give the other community some scrap to keep it quiet. The people of Northern Ireland are not fools. The vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland wants to see the marches take place, as they have done over many years without difficulty.

I wish the talks that are now taking place every success so that this legislation may possibly be no longer necessary.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, at this Second Reading of the Public Processions etc. (Northern Ireland) Bill, I wish to say that I welcome the Bill. I commend the efforts of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Dr. Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Office and the newly formed Parades Commission for the speedy way in which the complex aspects of parades have been examined and the proposed legislative measures compiled. I support the declared principles of the Bill and will join in every way possible to expedite the essential parliamentary procedures in this House.

In the main, I believe that the measures proposed will help considerably to establish acceptable democratic procedures and practices for the organisation of and participation in public parades and marches. I believe that the measures will enable constructive and wholesome respect for rights and responsibilities in the organisation of and participation in public processions, parades, marches and public meetings. The measures will encourage wholesome respect for rights and responsibilities in our sadly divided community and will provide the means by which the basis may be formed for building trust and understanding on the principles of accommodating differences. I believe that the measures will help towards the building of public principles for the foundation of a peaceful settlement and a prosperous society in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. I am pleased to see him here and compliment him on his maiden speech. With his understanding and experience of affairs in Northern Ireland, his opinion in this House will help with the growing awareness of the totality of affairs in the Province.

I listened with interest to remarks of my noble friend Lord Fitt on the role of the RUC. I share my noble friend's respect and join with his thanks for the way that the RUC has dealt in the past with the tremendous problems of marches. I join with my noble friend also in saying that 3,000 parades are held annually in Northern Ireland. About 20 of those cause trouble. Those troubles could be sorted out at their origin. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has also had experience of Northern Ireland. He pointed out in a positive way that we must discuss the principles of the Bill in detail, and referred to the role of the commission.

My experience has not been that of an elected Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament but as a trade union official for over 20 years. I had to organise, arrange and be responsible for hundreds of marches, to Stormont, to my noble friend Lord Fitt and others lobbying against unemployment and for change in our community. There was always a sense of responsibility. The May Day parade in particular was welcomed by the public in general. I always received help from the RUC, and had every convenience made available to achieve success. I am sure that such help is always forthcoming when a parade is mounted with a specific need.

I do not wish to go into great detail on the Bill. There are many problems as regards the day-to-day operation of the commission. My noble friend Lord Fitt examined the detail of the day-to-day working of the commission. However, there is also the operation of the 28-day period. The police have to have notice of parades. The commission has to be referred to. The legislation provides that the commission presents an annual report. I am not sure that an annual report by the commission will help this House to understand the times in which the problems occur. It will probably be the responsibility of the Secretary of State and the Minister in this House to report on the experience of the commission.

Finally, I wish to deal with a few points that I believe may arise. I do not wish to detain the House with a half appraisal; we shall be occupied with the details at Committee stage. In my experience, problems arose not with members on the parades but from the hangers on, the people who accompanied the march. Those people were out to use the parade as a way to upset the general operation of law and order in the Province.

I refer to a point which perhaps should be conveyed to the commission rather than dealt with in the Bill. At this stage one wonders about the proper way to handle it, but it is important to draw attention to this fact. At what age should people agree to participate in a parade? I have seen hundreds of children in a parade. I have seen babies in prams and youngsters being carried. It makes for a sensitive area in which it is difficult to apportion responsibility. One is worried as to how the situation can be controlled if something happens.

My noble friend Lord Fitt mentioned the use in the Bill's Title of the term "etc." in relation to public meetings. Very often, following parades, public meetings are held. It is at those meetings that the flames are fanned and the difficulties arise. I am sure that the Minister will be called upon in Committee to deal with a number of these matters—how they should be conveyed to the commission, how they should be dealt with on the Floor of the House and what should be included in the Bill. Those are the problems that immediately arise. In any case, I wish to indicate to the Minister who will reply that he has huge support in many aspects of the very difficult job that he has to undertake.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for the conscientious and detailed way in which he outlined the provisions in the Bill. We have quickly come to recognise that approach as characteristic of the way in which he works and presents matters in this House, and we greatly appreciate it. Perhaps I may add my own word of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, who made his maiden speech. I came to know the noble Lord when he served at the Northern Ireland Office. He was recognised there with some distinction for the solid, informed, conscientious and steady way in which he carried out his responsibilities. In someone who dealt with security matters in Northern Ireland, those characteristics were of enormous and reassuring importance. They were apparent in his speech today. We welcome the noble Lord, and look forward to his further contributions on Northern Ireland and other issues in this House.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, will know, the issue of parades, or indeed any other aspect of Northern Ireland life, tends to become quickly infected with the ancient feud. Over a long period of time parades have shown themselves to be susceptible to that infection. In Northern Ireland, it is not just a question of the past 20 or 30 years—or in the more extensive experience of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, 50 years. If we go back 100 years we find that governments were moved to ban all marches for a period of time because they became the occasion for violence, trouble and disorder.

That was not always the case. There were times, for example, when Orangemen went out not to march but, as they said, to walk. That distinction in terminology was significant. At times when the community was more placid and people genuinely merely wanted to express some cultural tradition, they went out to "walk". When people go out to march, and to parade, there is a military distinction attached to that terminology that is not without its significance. People go out to march around particular areas, to show that they are "their areas", and that they are in control of those areas. Very often, they want to do so in contra-distinction to others who may live there but to whom they may wish to say, "We are in control even though you may live here". That is what some of the distinction in terminology means.

More recently, those kinds of difficulties have come to infect the whole process. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, alluded to that, pointing out that there are those who wish to express objections to particular parades—in some cases parades that have gone on for a long period of time without significant disorder—because they want to make a political point that they are now in control of the particular area. There are some on the loyalist side who, knowing that significant demographic changes have taken place in an area and that it is no longer their particular area, nevertheless want to continue to hold their march, as though in some way they will continue to show that they have control. They often wish to do so at a time of greatest anxiety on their part that they are no longer in control. So in recent years the matter has come to the fore in a way that it did not previously.

In this regard the noble Lord, Lord Cope, will find a change in his experience. Previously, he had the good fortune to be in government. Now he will experience the enormous frustration of being requested by government to provide advice. Noble Lords may ask why it should be frustrating to be requested to provide advice. When one is first asked, one feels honoured. One gives consideration to the matter, consults widely, returns with the best thought-out plans that one can, presents them to the Minister, and then finds that one of two things tends to happen. Either the Minister refuses to accept the advice—that is the more fortunate possibility—or, less fortunately, the Minister accepts some of the advice and puts it into operation in such a way as to produce the worst possible result and the greatest possible frustration, and you receive the blame for having tendered the advice in the first place.

Dr. Peter North may well find himself in that situation, and to some extent at the hands of two succeeding governments. The first, the previous Government who asked for the advice, received it. Reading through it in detail at the time it was published and again more recently, I find the report remarkably good. I should not say "remarkably" in relation to Dr. North and his two colleagues; I should say, "expected" good report. I particularly expected it because so many of the matters that he included were based on advice that I and my colleagues had given to him. The first was that it would be good to have a commission to produce some kind of advice, mediation, and indeed determination if that were required.

Why did we make such a suggestion? We told the North Commission that it should make such propositions because we had already brought them to the previous Government in the previous year. After the trouble at Drumcree in 1995, we went to the Secretary of State at that stage—now the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, and we told him, "There is going to be trouble next year as there has been this year, and it will be much worse in 1996. We advise you to put in place a commission which can assist with mediation but which can make a determination if that is so required in order to ensure that the RUC, who are always piggy-in-the-middle in having to make a determination and enforce it, have that invidious position removed from them, and a rational discussion can take place on the matter". We further engaged his interest in the matter. He asked for some thoughts and advice, which we tendered—not in so much detail as in the succeeding year, but nevertheless we tendered it. But it must then have fallen foul of some of his advisers or colleagues, because it disappeared.

The next year, 1996, the whole Drumcree episode was every bit as bad as we had predicted it would he. So we returned with our proposals, newly burnished and expanded a little, with more detail, and this time with much greater support from all and sundry, who had begun to realise the trouble that was brewing. The North Commission was established and produced the report; and the Government, I fear, balked somewhat at it and felt it would be better to engage in what may be described as "wheelbarrow" politics; that is to say, you put the matter in front of you and wheel it along, not necessarily unpacking the burden at that stage.

So the commission was established, and with little power. Predictably, it was not able to do a great deal in terms of the summer period.

I support the Bill strongly; I wish to see it come into operation. However, there are two major problems. First, if there is to be negotiation between those who want to hold marches—they need not necessarily be loyal orders; they may well be nationalists—and those in the area who are at best unsure about the march being held, often a deal must be struck.

Given that there are usually a number of marches down any particular road over a period of a year, there needs to be some balance of the number of marches, the kind of marches, and what is expected over a period of time. Peter North recognised that. He referred to it in Recommendation 15, in Chapter 12 of his report. He states that the pattern must be viewed over the period of a year. It is clear that the current commission believes that to be a good idea. In the procedural rules published yesterday, it points out that in expressing a preliminary view it would like to examine any or all of the parades in a location. But if the provision is not clearly marked on the face of the Bill, I guarantee that there are those who will challenge whether the commission can enforce its recommendations; who will put the matter to judicial review, and so on. The last thing we need is for the commission to be dragged through that kind of situation where there is an uncertainty in its own mind and that of the community as to whether it really has the power to look at these matters. I hope that either the Minister and his colleagues will consider including a clause with appropriate wording that would not be incongruent with the European Convention on Human Rights or that they might be prepared to accept the views of some of the rest of us on that matter. It seems to me that, if deals are going to be done—as they must be—the pattern of parades over a period of time and their location will be important.

The second problem has already been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham; that is, the provisions of Clause 3 relating to expressions of cultural identity. I can only assume that the Orange Order, the Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys assumed that the purpose of the commission was to ban a certain number of marches—enough to appease those who did not want the marches. I have a different view. Where Orange marches or Apprentice Boys marches are inappropriate or insensitive and should be banned or re-routed, then so be it. But there could well be unreasonable requests by residents who are simply trying to stir up trouble. In such cases the Orange march should be allowed to go its course with legal backing; the police should not have to make the determination but simply ensure that the march went through. Unfortunately, I have the feeling that unionist people assumed that the commission was going to be anti-unionist and suggested to the Government that some balancing clause would need to be put in.

The term "cultural identity" tends to be one used more by nationalists in Northern Ireland, at least in the past. Therefore the connoting of other forms of cultural identity in the Northern Ireland context is the kind of language used to describe what unionists might think of nationalists and therefore something that could be banned on the other side.

In a previous debate in your Lordships' House I pointed out that the way forward was not to produce two sets of rights which would always have to be balanced one against the other because there would always be a dispute as to who was on the short end of the stick. The way forward is to produce one set of rights which applies to everybody: one commission for parades, no matter who sets them up, to adjudicate between the paraders and the residents, no matter which side of the community they come from.

When you introduce expressions of cultural identity, you do two things. First, you identify cultural identity with political allegiance. That notion has bedevilled politics in Ireland for the last 100 years: the insistence that if you are a Protestant you have to be a unionist and, at best, light on your Irishness; and if you are a Catholic you have to be a nationalist and certainly would put Irish at the top of the tree.

When we include in a piece of legislation a commitment that cultural identity will be some kind of balance to the commission on parades, which is mostly concerned with Orange parades, we fall into that very trap. It is a particular foolishness because, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, pointed out, while unionists, Orangemen and others might well think the commission will find itself applying cultural expression mostly to representations of Gaelic/Catholic/nationalist identity, I can guarantee that there will be those sophisticated enough in the nationalist community to say, "Here is another stick with which to beat unionists". And there will be a list of every Orange arch, not to mention all the gaily painted kerbstones, gable walls and other things. Outdoor concerts and goodness knows what else will be dragged into the whole business. The outcome will not be the one intended by the Government, not the one that I suspect was intended by those who promoted it from the unionist side, but rather something that will drag into the mire all kinds of other issues which are at this stage relatively less political and certainly way outside the remit of parades. The Parades Commission, instead of becoming something that helps to solve a difficult problem, will become mired down in it. No one will want to be a member of such a commission. It will be made into a kind of sin-bin, asked to solve all the impossible problems of defining cultural, political identity and nationalism.

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will be prepared to look carefully at whether a clause such as Clause 3 adds to or enormously detracts from the possible success of the Bill, which otherwise, in its fullness and its congruity with the North Report, I fully endorse and heartily welcome.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, all the points which I intended to make today have been covered—and in most cases covered rather better than I could do—by other noble Lords and my remarks will therefore be brief.

I welcome this Bill as a serious attempt to find a better way forward. It will at least relieve the Chief Constable of the sole responsibility for permitting or banning parades or processions. He and his officers have in the past acted as mediators, arbitrators and then decision-makers where there have often been significant political implications. He has had an impossible job. The commission will have a difficult job, but at least the way it will operate will be laid down in a structured manner.

Several noble Lords have spoken of the 3,000 or more marches and parades which take place every year, 20, or even fewer, of which perhaps give rise to serious problems. We should not forget that walking or parading throughout the Province is on many occasions a social activity. Throughout the Province parades by Orange orders or the Ancient Order of Hibernians have often taken place in the same area with some understanding and mutual respect. It has not been uncommon for there to be co-operation, perhaps in the lending or borrowing of band instruments and so on. I hope that the scale of the structure to be imposed will not be totally out of line with these peaceable parades.

There are endless parades. What is a parade? Is it a small Church parade, a walk on a Sunday? Such things happen almost spontaneously. Care will need to be taken about the definition of a parade. There are all sorts of small gatherings and those involved would not think of giving 28 days' notice; they just happen. That must be made clear; otherwise there will be great confusion and tension.

Unfortunately, in some respects the parade problem has become worse in recent years. Most urban housing estates have now become polarised and mixed housing and mixed communities are no longer the norm. Some new estates close to the parade routes have been built, the residents of which are almost wholly nationalist. Both sides have been responsible at one time or another for the build-up of fear and bad feeling.

A recent and more sinister development is that Sinn Fein/IRA regards many nationalist areas as its territory and has actively encouraged resistance to parades by the loyal orders, perhaps under the excuse of culture but in fact to increase unrest and to prove that the police are not accepted and that it is the police who provoke riots in their areas.

The Sinn Fein/IRA objective is to prevent loyal order parades by threat of violence. On occasions this summer concessions were offered by loyal orders for some contentious parades but these did not meet with a positive response. In the past few days in Bellaghy in Co. Londonderry the residents committee objected to the traditional Armistice Sunday parade by the Royal British Legion, an entirely non-political organisation, because of the band that will be used. This clearly suggests the nature of the problem and the commission's task.

Reasonableness and mediation are not the answer where the Sinn Fein/IRA tactic is to cause trouble. If it bans traditional parades by the loyal orders because nationalists threaten violence, that will not be acceptable. If the commission determines that a parade cannot reasonably be objected to and permits it to take place, any breach of the peace will be another problem for the police. The commission's task is not an enviable one.

Clause 3 has been spoken of at length. It makes no sense to me. I know that it was added at the last moment to try to bring in the matter of cultural identity. I see nothing but trouble from it, and serious consideration must be given to abolishing Clause 3 or writing it in some way that makes sense. At the moment, it is a recipe for trouble. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that any expression of cultural identity immediately starts apparently to favour one side or the other. That is quite the wrong way to go about it. The Bill must be written in a way in which the treatment will be the same and be fair treatment for all concerned.

Clause 7 requires notice of a parade. What is a parade? That question must be looked at very carefully. To go through such an enormous procedure for very small gatherings and walks will create an impossible situation.

The work of the commission has to be formalised with a code of conduct and procedural rules. But laying down a formal procedure for objections may—indeed, will—encourage objections and protests. It could become a shop for manufacturing grievances. That aspect must be watched because there are enough alleged grievances already in Northern Ireland.

I was encouraged and interested by a letter in last night's Belfast Telegraph. I quote from part of it. It starts: It is with great anger and indignation that I, as a Roman Catholic born, bred and still living in Crumlin, note the `coming out of the closet' of a so-called Nationalist anti-parades group". The writer goes on to describe his relationship with the Orange Order in his area and says: As for me, I'll still be out giving and receiving a friendly wave or two from my Orange neighbours, who are usually first in the line to bid me greetings on St. Patrick's Day". He signs the letter "Concerned Catholic". He is one of many hundreds of thousands of sensible citizens, Protestant or Catholic, who identify and recognise just what is happening, where Sinn Fein or another organisation stirs up trouble in order to cause strife.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, several noble Lords have spoken on this subject with much greater authority than I could ever bring to it. Perhaps I may bring to this matter a different perspective, which I feel it is a duty to bring to the problem of Northern Ireland. After all, it is the problem of all of us, whether or not we live there.

First, as many noble Lords have said, out of the 3,000 or so parades, demonstrations and marches which take place, only a very few cause problems. It is only a very small number which has caused the major problems that we have seen on our television screens. That happened especially in 1995 and 1996, when there were two such episodes.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I say, "If it's broke, please only fix that part which has gone wrong. Don't replace the whole machine." We must understand precisely the way the commission has to operate. All parades are not at issue. All parades should not become an issue. All forms of expression of cultural identity are not in contention and we should not bring them into contention. It is very important that we concentrate on the two or three major "set piece" occasions (if I may so call them) which have in recent years become occasions for confrontation.

If that is the case, we must consider the work of the commission in a different way. One of the great problems in setting up commissions is that they want to have something to do. If they do not have anything to do they will invent something to do and it will become a huge industry. There will be lists of issues such as cultural identity, and so on, and they will go on for ever.

To me Clause 2 of the Bill is the crucial clause. Basically, it speaks about information and mediation in a much more open way than has been done so far. The duty of the commission is: to promote greater understanding.….to promote and facilitate mediation". Also, it is very important that the guidelines issued by the commission talk about "local accommodation" in a very positive way. I believe that it is a problem of local accommodation and consultation between the citizens so far as possible without having to bring in the commission. Ideally, the commission should be an invisible hand—it should not actually be there. So far as possible it should encourage the local community to act.

In that respect, confusion often arises through defining the problem in much greater generality. I am always surprised when people discuss this matter or write reports on it. Excellent as this report is, it does not go into the laws of those countries in which communal conflicts are a major problem. Despite the recent Commonwealth heads of government meeting, we do not realise that in India, for example, there is a similar big problem between Hindus and Moslems. There is the same issue of cultural identity; there are parades and processions; and festivals and battles take place. It only matters if people are physically intimidated or harm each other. A bit of "aggro" is all right. What is of real concern is the breakdown of law and order—for example, in 1996 when the RUC was put into a position into which it should never have been put.

So I believe that this is not a problem of cultural identity or whatever. It is a problem of how one can stop a process before it becomes a seriously physically violent process. Everything else should be allowed to happen as it does. We shall not solve the whole problem by this legislation or any other piece of legislation. The problem may or may not solve itself, but that is another issue.

I see the commission's remit as centred very much around Clause 2—mediating, helping, informing and educating—rather than taking the route of determinations, where it will get into a very invidious position. People will ask, "Who does the commission represent? What power does it have?" Eventually, it will become a political body. Political power lies with the Secretary of State, and that is where it will end up. That will only devalue the commission. A tough decision cannot be taken by the commission; all it can do is solve problems which are suitable for resolution at a fairly friendly level.

It will be very important to see the commission as much more of a civil society organisation, helping other forces to achieve local reconciliation and local accommodation, than as a body which frequently takes the determination route, which I hope it does not have to do. That way lies trouble.

I also share the reservations of other noble Lords with regard to Clause 3, which I do not even understand. Certainly, if the intention is to open out to many more issues, I would suggest that either we stop now or, if there must be a Clause 3, then forget to implement it.

I say only one more thing, relating to what was said by my noble friend Lord Fitt. We more or less have a fixture list of major parades; we know the dates, and so forth. Therefore, as happened in 1997, one can take anticipatory action. The major problem arises from starting in March, while the talks process is at an extremely delicate stage. We may fix a deadline; but deadlines can be inciting.

I ask my noble friend to say to the commission—there are now only four or five months—"make sure the discussions start now", especially if the talks process either does not finish in May, looks as though it may be prolonged or—heaven forbid!—breaks down. There will then have to be a solid third line of defence because that is not the task of the commission. That is something we must anticipate early on.

As has been pointed out, there are interesting inter-relationships between ceasefires and no ceasefires and civilian troubles in relation to marches. That interaction is going to be extremely important.

I welcome the Bill but hope that my noble friend will take on board the comments made this afternoon. The smaller and more accommodating a civil society the commission becomes, the better it will be. We do not want to get into a situation whereby more issues become contentious than is already the case.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I start from the distinctly unfashionable proposition these days that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a good thing and ought to be sustained. A prerequisite for that, in my opinion, is that there should be common rights and common duties throughout the kingdom, because it is right that there should be and because it helps to create a sense of common identity. For the same reason, laws ought also to be harmonised unless there is good reason for doing otherwise.

How does the Bill stand up to that test? Unlike some of my libertarian colleagues, I have never maintained that the right to demonstrate is an absolute and unqualified right. When people talk about the right to demonstrate, they normally mean mobile as opposed to static demonstrations like the rallies in Hyde Park. This Bill, first and foremost, concerns the right to demonstrate. Like the noble Lords, Lord Holme of Cheltenham and Lord Fitt, and others, I do not believe that one can take Clause 3 seriously.

As a general principle—again on an "all United Kingdom" basis—the right to march must be balanced against the right of others to get from A to B without missing their trains, their flights, their job interviews and so forth. But to that end it should not be necessary to ban marches and parades altogether; merely to require some minor modifications to them. For example, people could be required to march no more than three or four abreast so that traffic can flow freely and, if the road is narrow, that could be reduced to two abreast. Nor would it be unreasonable to curb excessive noise.

What worries me about the Bill is whether the principle of absolutely minimal modification will be adhered to in practice under sustained pressure from Sinn Fein/IRA. We all know, though it is not spelt out, that the Bill is introduced above all to cope with Orange and other loyalist marches and, to a lesser extent, with Remembrance Day parades.

The strategy of Sinn Fein and its fellow travellers is to try continually to get the goal posts moved to the detriment of unionism in its widest sense and to destroy the morale of unionists, again in the widest sense of that word. To that end the members do their best to stir up a hostility to those traditional parades which rarely occurred in the past or, to the extent that it did, was only in a lukewarm, half-hearted form. It is as though national socialists—of a different ilk from the IRA—in England, taking advantage of the mild irritation felt by the residents of Notting Hill and Bayswater over the inevitable noise and litter associated with another expression of cultural identity—the Notting Hill Carnival—were trying to stir up the residents into physically blocking it.

There is certainly a good case for banning any parade which proposes to march through residential streets in the centre of a hostile area, though there are not many such attempts. But marching along main roads on the periphery of a hostile area is a different matter, and there is no case for banning processions in places which are merely in sight of a hostile area, like the walls of the old City of Derry. In borderline cases a reasonable compromise would be to require participants to march in complete silence and to carry no provocative banners. That should be good enough for anybody apart from the fanatics on both sides.

Remembrance Day parades should never be banned; after all, they are open to everybody and many members of the nationalist community died fighting the Kaiser and Hitler respectively—the latter at a time when the IRA was secretly negotiating with Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, as we learnt from a recent television documentary.

I enjoy a good marching tune as much as the next man. But even if I lived in Northern Ireland—which I do not—I could never consider joining anything like the Orange Order; it is simply not my cup of tea, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, I can understand why so many people do so, which may seem surprising to those on the mainland who have never faced any genuine threat to their national identity.

We are constantly enjoined by republicans to look at everything from an all-Irish perspective. If one does exactly that and examines the history of the island of Ireland over the past 80 years, one will see that, though ethnic cleansing was certainly carried out by both communities (there can be no dispute about that), the overwhelming majority of those dispossessed were Protestants and unionists. The population statistics, the voting statistics and the abandoned churches in the South testify to that. TheSpectator recently carried some interesting correspondence about the pogroms, as they were described, of 1921 and 1922 in the west of Ireland.

Evictions in the North have been fewer but bloodier. No less an authority than Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien has written of the systematic liquidation of unionists in the border areas of County Fermanagh. That perhaps helps to explain why many Orange parades (which, by all accounts, were genuinely festive and could be enjoyed by all and sundry, as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice pointed out) have in recent years unfortunately taken on a much harder edge.

At any rate, the branding of those parades as "triumphalist" by those who disapprove of them seems wide of the mark; the description "survivalist" would be more accurate. That is why, if the Bill is accepted without amendment, one trusts that its provisions will be applied with the greatest tact and sensitivity and with a built-in predisposition towards allowing long-standing traditional parades to continue to take place with the minimum of restriction.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for taking part in the debate and for their valuable, interesting and well-informed contributions. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, on his maiden speech. We were both in the other place together, I for a shorter time than he. He has had a distinguished ministerial career, including a period in Northern Ireland where he is still well remembered and well regarded. I congratulate him on an excellent maiden speech. I am pleased to say that he was broadly supportive of the Government's position; woe betide us when the day comes that he is not. I hope that that day will not come in relation to Northern Ireland.

We know only too well the complexity of the problems Northern Ireland has faced for so long. The parades issue has proved in recent years to be one of the most complex. It is a microcosm, as many noble Lords have indicated, of the religious and political entrenchment which still, despite the invaluable progress we have seen, characterises society there.

One lesson that has been learnt down the years—many noble Lords referred to this point—is that imposed solutions cannot work. The source for an acceptable settlement must, by definition, be the people of Northern Ireland. So it is with parades. The central aim of the legislation, therefore, as I have set out for noble Lords, is to encourage agreement between those who are locked in confrontation. Although we have entrusted the new body with the power to make all important decisions on disputed parades, we want above all to create the conditions in which this power need not be used and instead agreement can be facilitated. That is the key aspect of the Bill.

We are committed to preserving the civil rights of all our citizens and our intention to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic legislation is a pledge of our commitment in that respect. Accordingly, our principle is equal treatment for both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. It is this principle which lies at the heart of our approach.

Many noble Lords made important contributions. I do not wish to get into details of what will be an interesting Committee stage. On the other hand, I want as much as possible to deal with some of the specific points that were raised and questions that were asked. If I do not deal with all of them, I hope noble Lords will accept that the Committee stage will be the next opportunity when they can, as it were, press their particular points.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, made a number of points. He asked about financial assistance in Clause 2. The commission has a duty to promote greater understanding of parades and to promote and facilitate mediation. The provision in subsection (3)(a) would be, for instance, to enable the commission to give financial assistance to any person or body which is engaged in the business of mediation and conciliation. As the noble Lord said, we do not envisage that the sums involved will be major—small sums of money but as part of a useful process.

The noble Lord also asked about the exclusion of sporting events in Clause 3. We recognise that sporting events can be a statement of community identity but we do not believe that anyone wants to take offence at this or to politicise sport. That is why we have decided to exclude such events from the extended remit as set out in Clause 3. There are events which people may or may not choose to attend. But there may be public order problems which can arise in connection with sporting events. Those may be the ones to which the noble Lord referred. They may have a sectarian aspect. However, we believe that these are straightforward policing matters with which the police have powers to deal and therefore are not relevant to this Bill concerning public processions. The existing powers the police have should be sufficient to deal with those.

The noble Lord asked a technical question—I call it technical—about the Secretary of State's power to ban marches and said that this does not require the Secretary of State to have regard to traditionality or the failure of those involved to comply with the code of conduct. The desirability of allowing a procession customarily held along a particular route to proceed along that route is relevant to the question whether the commission should impose a condition on that parade since one of the conditions the Government can impose relates to the route that that parade may follow. But it is not relevant to the overall power to ban a parade. That is a different matter. Once the power to impose conditions is considered inadequate, the route which it should follow is not therefore relevant to the question whether it should be banned completely. Therein lies the difference. The code of conduct is also relevant to the imposition of conditions but has no direct significance for the banning power. It would be too extreme to allow breaches of the code to result in a total ban. In the distinctions we have drawn here, to which the noble Lord referred, we have kept faithfully to the recommendations in the North Report.

The noble Lord also asked about different penalties for different offences under the Bill. This is a quite complicated point. It would seem here both that the possible penalties are maxima and that the authorities have a range of possible charges depending upon the circumstances. Some of these provisions re-enact existing legislation. But on the specific example given, I think it is reasonable that the maximum penalty in events where no notice has been given but no further trouble has resulted should be lower than in those cases where the organisers consciously decided to defy a legal ruling reached by the commission after due consideration. As for breaking up processions, if that is done with violence, there are a variety of other public order offences which can be put against those involved in such activities.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked a number of significant questions. He asked about 28 days' notice being required under Clause 7. He asked about those individuals who might wish to organise a parade which concerned, for example, an issue which arose at short notice—such as a trade union dispute. Under Clause 7(2) notice must be 28 days or as soon as reasonably practicable. Therefore, account can be taken of issues which have arisen so quickly that the 28 days' notice would not have been appropriate.

A number of contributions covered the question of Clause 3 and what might be called the extended remit. I was asked what it would cover. It would be for the commission itself to consider—and make recommendations if necessary—the law and practice concerning other expressions of cultural identity. We have no fixed views about what it should look at, although the Bill will make it clear that we have excluded sporting events. Undoubtedly, the commission would receive representations from the public and others about those expressions of cultural identity which concerned them. However, the key point on this—I understand the different feelings in the House—is that, as originally conceived and based on the North recommendations, we felt that the Bill might be seen as not being even-handed across both communities and both traditions in Northern Ireland. We sought to redress that so that the Bill can be seen to be even-handed across the whole of Northern Ireland. To deal with that we felt that this extra provision would be desirable.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I hope he will address the point made by my noble friend Lord Alderdice that the concept of balance may be particularly inappropriate in the Bill. Do I understand the noble Lord to say that what is cultural identity is to be defined by the commission only and that the Government will give no more guidance than what appears on the face of the Bill?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, on the second point, I think it would be inappropriate for the Government to tell the commission how to act on this provision. We believe that it is for the commission to take this into account, bearing in mind that the powers of the commission are simply to give advice in this respect to the Secretary of State. The commission does not have any further powers than as envisaged in the Bill.

As regards the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, as to whether we are seeking too much balance, what we want is legislation that will be accepted by all the people in Northern Ireland. That is what we are aiming at. We want consent for the legislation. I believe that the attempt to achieve balance will help to get consent for the legislation. I hope that I can bring both noble Lords with me on this. I understand their concerns, but we believe that the effect of this provision will be to achieve balance and therefore the consent that is essential if the legislation is to have a fair run and if the commission is to be able to carry out its task.

Another key issue raised by a number of noble Lords is why we did not adopt the North proposals on what I might call a "package deal" covering a whole series of marches. Perhaps I may use that expression, inelegant as it sounds. That matter was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Alderdice, and a number of other noble Lords. It is clear that the package deal was a recommendation in the North Report. Indeed, it is one of the very few areas where our legislation does not implement the report in full.

The commission will seek to facilitate local agreements over longer periods in the way that the report proposes. It will also have the power to express in advance its preliminary views on what the outcome for particular parades should be. We hope that that will go some way to achieving the assurance that the North Report was looking for.

However, we believe that there will be considerable practical and legal difficulties in giving the commission the binding powers suggested. The purpose of the package deal suggested would be to provide reassurance and certainty about the number of parades that will be permitted in any given area. But while in practice many parades are known about well in advance, others are organised at short notice. Overall rulings would not be able to take them into account. We are clear that the Parades Commission needs to make its decisions on the basis of all the facts surrounding an individual parade. If the commission had already made its decision in advance of knowing the full circumstances of the case, it would be vulnerable to the charge that it had fettered its own discretion.

The right to march is an important one and in the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights restrictions need to be justified on the grounds that they are necessary and proportionate to the circumstances of the case. The only way around that problem that we can see is either to give the commission an explicit power to set quotas for the number of parades which are acceptable in given areas, regardless of the circumstances, or to require parade organisers to give a much longer period of notice, perhaps six months or longer, to enable decisions to be taken in advance of the marching season. Both of those are radical suggestions and pose grave difficulties in ECHR terms.

We recognise the weight that some place on this particular recommendation of the North Report. While we see the difficulties we retain an open mind and will be happy to consider any suggestions put forward either in this House or in the other place. I hope that that will reassure those noble Lords who are unhappy about the specific point to which I have referred.

Perhaps I may deal very quickly with a number of outstanding issues that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, spoke about the Royal British Legion parades and his concern that there may be some problems about them. I share that concern. I believe that those parades are a tribute to the large number of people who gave their lives fighting for this country in both world wars, including many Irishmen, both Catholic and Protestant. They made a significant and valiant contribution, particularly to the 1939–45 war, alongside people from Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, Kenya, Jamaica and many other countries. We see those parades as paying tribute to all those people who died and who came from all those countries. It would be most inappropriate and wrong in principle if anyone thought that there was something wrong with those parades. They are a right and proper expression of respect for the many people who died.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, asked about the position of the Irish Government. The Parades Commission is independent. It is meant to be independent of this Government as it is of any other government. It is that very independence of the commission which is central to what we are seeking to do and why we believe that this proposal ought to achieve consent across the whole community—precisely because of the independence of the Parades Commission. The noble Lord also suggested that members of the commission should attend flashpoints. I am sure that they will. I believe that some of them did in the last marching season. No doubt they will have heard the noble Lord's suggestions and will take account of them.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said that we all carry baggage. I have learnt that that is certainly true in Northern Ireland. He also said that at the end of the day the RUC will have to deal with the difficulties. That is so if all else fails, but if the commission's role, as defined in the Bill, is successful we will not get to the point where the RUC will have to pick up all the pieces.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, spoke about hangers on at parades and about young children taking part and the difficulties that that will cause. Again, these are issues which I am sure that the Parades Commission will take into account when dealing with any particular parade.

My noble friend Lord Desai spoke about the small number of parades that cause problems. I agree with that. He also said that not all expressions of cultural identity are in contention, and they are certainly not. He emphasised the importance of local accommodation. I agree fully with all of that. He also suggested that the Parades Commission should start its work now in anticipation of the next marching season. Again, I am sure that those words will have been heard by the members of the commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, spoke about threats of violence and said that they themselves might prejudice the holding of a parade. We have experienced threats of violence over the years in connection with parades and it is precisely to deal with that problem that we have a Parades Commission—in the hope that it will take all the issues into account and arrive at a balanced conclusion. I do not believe that the very existence of that commission will encourage more people to express grievances; at least I hope it will not. Indeed, we have had so many grievances expressed in Northern Ireland that I do not believe that one piece of legislation is likely to add to them, but one never knows for certain. But I do not believe that that will necessarily be the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, spoke about a number of situations where marches will be banned. But the essential point of the remit of the Parades Commission is that it will not ban marches but will deal with matters short of banning them such as affecting the route. If we get to the point of banning marches the commission will not have succeeded.

In conclusion, agreement on parades will transform the prospects for political progress. The difficulties are immense, as many noble Lords have indicated. But I believe that such agreement is achievable. Let us grasp this opportunity to set in place a vital building block on which we can base a secure and just settlement for Northern Ireland. I thank noble Lords for their very positive support for the Bill and ask them to give the Bill a second reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.