Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Northern Ireland Marching Season
To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has discussed with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State the need to bring clarity to the exact authority of the Parades Commission and its jurisdiction over non-notified parades in view of the fact that difficulties have recently emerged with non-notified parades; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9179/13]
I have discussed the ongoing situation regarding the flag protests and the upcoming marching season with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, on a number of occasions, most recently in Dublin on 11 February last. I have also discussed these issues in ongoing contacts with the party leaders in Northern Ireland.
The particular problem posed by non-notified parades has been a matter of some comment recently. My understanding is that the interpretation of certain provisions of the Public Processions Northern Ireland Act 1998, under which the Parades Commission acts, is likely to arise in the context of an imminent judicial review. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage. However, while only a small number of applications related to the flag protests have been made to the Parades Commission, almost 200 people have been arrested in regard to these protests since they began on 3 December. I would like to record the Government’s support and appreciation for the efforts of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to protect the community there throughout weeks of public disorder. I would also like to record our absolute support for the role and mandate of the Parades Commission and for the commissioners and their staff who willingly take on work that, while critical for society in Northern Ireland, is often thankless.
Parades do not operate solely in a regulatory environment; they also operate in a political framework. Where that political framework is weak or inadequate, the Parades Commission and the Police Service of Northern Ireland are required bear an added burden of responsibility. We will continue, therefore, to take every opportunity to urge the party leaders and the Executive to address these issues urgently and in a manner that advances the lasting reconciliation which is at the heart of the Agreement and which must remain our shared objective.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. Since I tabled this parliamentary question last Thursday, this issue has received considerable coverage in the media. One police officer issued a strong message that judicial clarity is needed on parading laws. The Tánaiste referred to this and we await the judicial review. It is to be hoped that can be finalised as soon as possible. Next Saturday will be the 11th consecutive Saturday a parade has been held in Belfast and everyone is aware of the trouble emanating from these non-notified parades. These flag marches around City Hall are parades but they are not classified as such and, therefore, do not come within the jurisdiction of the Parades Commission because they are not notified. All the other parades outside Belfast relating to the new protocol regarding the flying of the union flag were notified to the commission and came under its jurisdiction. There was weak commentary, to be charitable, regarding the reasons for the postponement of the Crusaders-Cliftonville soccer game last Saturday evening when senior unionists referred to "events" causing the postponement.
Like the Tánaiste, I have spoken to political leaders and community members in Northern Ireland on a constant basis and there is great concern in many communities, particularly in Belfast, given the marching season begins this coming Saturday, that this issue needs to be addressed with the utmost urgency. Clarity needs to be brought to the jurisdiction of the Parades Commission regarding parades as we know them, as provided for following the enactment of the Public Processions Northern Ireland Bill 1998. Will the Tánaiste ensure this issue remains on the agenda at senior levels with the British Government, the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Executive and political leaders in the North?
I assure the Deputy that this is very much on our agenda. The Parades Commission was established at the height of the Drumcree parade related violence under the 1998 Act and the policy underpinning this was to remove from the police the dual responsibility of taking decisions on parades and then having to police their own decisions. The Government strongly supports the work, mandate and role of the commission. I do not want to talk about the judicial review that is imminent for obvious reasons but in view of forthcoming parades, which will pass through Short Strand and other interfaces in Belfast, both the Irish and British Governments are of the view that the commission needs to be strongly supported and that its determinations must be respected. I urge all parties to engage with local residents at interfaces to identify compromise solutions that respect the wishes of both marchers and communities and we will continue our efforts to work with the Northern Ireland political leadership on these issues.
What we have witnessed over the past ten weeks is the remit of the Parades Commission not being respected by people organising parades every weekend and midweek as well. On the morning of 11 February, both the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State, Ms Villiers, referred to the need for greater urgency to be attached to a resolution of the underlying problems of sectarianism by the Northern Ireland Executive and political leaders. In view of the urgency of dealing with this issue and the potential for it to escalate, which hopefully will not happen, does the Tánaiste agree that the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron should convene a meeting with the five party political leaders in Northern Ireland, which has been proposed by one political party, to give the resolution of this issue much needed impetus? The marching season begins this coming Saturday and, as the Tánaiste said, that parade passes by the Short Strand interface. We do not want to witness violence on the streets of Belfast and other towns that we witnessed in December and January.
Every opportunity is taken to impress on the political leaders in Northern Ireland the importance of having an agreed position on parades, the issue of the shared future and, in particular, responding to street violence when it occurs. The position of both the Irish and British Governments was expressed clearly by both Secretary of State Villiers and I jointly when we met the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the quad format. We have each separately communicated, in our discussions with leaders of political parties, our view, which is shared by both governments, of how this issue should be dealt with.
The critical issue in the period ahead is to have clear support for the Parades Commission and Police Service of Northern Ireland and the work they must do and an agreed opposition by political leadership in Northern Ireland to street violence and some of the things that are causing it.