Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Northern Ireland Parades.

Bertie Ahern

Ceist:

6 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the suggestion of the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Eames, that a body be established to advise on the wisdom of routes during the marching season. [10222/96]

Mary Harney

Ceist:

40 Miss Harney asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the proposal put forward by Archbishop Robin Eames to establish a body to oversee parade routes in Northern Ireland; and the representations, if any, made by his Department in respect of this matter. [9623/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 40 together. I also refer to my reply on 25 April 1995 to Question No. 28 from Deputy Harney.

Since I gave that reply there have been a number of further constructive contributions to the debate on the parades issue which I welcome. The proposal made by the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Robin Eames, that a body be established to advise on the routing of parades in Northern Ireland deserves serious consideration in the context of this debate and I particularly welcome it. Similar proposals have also been made by other respected commentators. Clearly these are an important contribution to the dialogue which is essential if the difficulties surrounding the marching season are to be resolved.

As I have indicated before, the Government's policy is that those who wish to celebrate their identity and heritage by marching should exercise that right with due respect for the principle that parades should not take place in an area or along a route where they are not welcome. We have also consistently emphasised the need to address the issue of parades in all its dimensions — political, social, cultural and public order.

We stand ready to contribute to further discussion of the proposal for an independent tribunal or other body to consider the parades question. It has been observed many times that the problems created by the marching season are themselves a reflection of the wider political division between the communities in Northern Ireland and have an impact beyond the local area where difficulties occur. An independent body or some general agreement on the issue would therefore be very welcome.

However, it is unlikely that an agreed proposal for an independent body could be implemented in time to influence parades scheduled for this year. I raised our concerns about the current marching season with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 22 May 1996. On a number of occasions already this year the RUC has given early notice of its decisions on particular march routes. I welcome this approach, which I believe allows time for mediation and dialogue to develop. I hope that it will continue to be followed throughout the marching season.

It is important that the principle which I have outlined should be respected even where large numbers are involved in a proposed march. I would add that, where a parade is routed through an area where it is not welcome, this in itself deepens community division, even where there is no actual disorder, and postpones a resolution of the fundamental issues surrounding the parades issue.

The House will be aware that the conference called on all those involved in the planning of parades this year to exercise compromise and balance in the interests of the community as a whole and encouraged agreements between all concerned. I note in particular the heavy responsibility bearing on those who are involved in the organisation of parades during the rest of the marching season, particularly at a time when all-party negotiations will be under way. I hope that Archbishop Eames's recent call on these leaders to show charity, understanding and good example will be heeded in the months ahead, and that they will avoid the predictable confrontations which reflect so poorly on the public image of the organisations involved.

I assume the Tánaiste did not discuss the marching season only at his most recent meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 22 May but that this perennial subject has remained on the agenda of the Anglo Irish Conference since last year and on every agenda at some stage. Did he specifically put to the Secretary of State the suggestion of Archbishop Eames?

To the best of my recollection, the matter of parades has been discussed at every Intergovernmental Conference, certainly in recent years and possibly since 1985. Within the Intergovernmental Conference we raised specific suggestions. There are other suggestions in relation to the establishment of a commission or body to advise and direct the relevant authorities in relation to parades, to which we shall revert in our future discussions.

Hopefully, since we are about to embark on all-inclusive talks, including representation by Sinn Féin, on 10 June, will the Tánaiste say whether there have been informal contacts between the authorities — recognising that the timeframe would not permit the establishment of such a body in a formal way — in an endeavour to defuse the atmosphere in advance of any flashpoint incidents during the talks process? Does he agree the talks process itself will be sufficiently sensitive without the added burden of a flashpoint incident, similar to that which has occurred every year and the major one we witnessed last year?

It is accepted that, with talks in progress, this issue will become more sensitive than it has been and, of its very nature, it is a very sensitive one. From our discussions with the British Government, and others they would have had with their security forces, we know they would want the matter treated in a very sensitive manner. It is very important that there be forward planning in relation to these parades, where advance notice is given, so that problems can be signalled and mediation can take place between the organisers and the community. Whenever that has taken place it has been quite successful. Not all circumstances have been dealt with but, as far as we are concerned, these marches will be dealt with in a sensitive manner. Since negotiations will be taking place, we hope no difficulties will be encountered in the forthcoming marching season. As the Deputy will appreciate, it is difficult to guarantee this but everything will be done by the RUC, the various organisers and the communities who are disrupted by these parades to ensure peaceful co-operation between them.

While wholly welcoming and commending Archbishop Eames's suggestion, I might point out that many of these parades go to churches and that the church authorities themselves have a slightly more direct role in many of these matters since they are the hosts in such places. I asked the Taoiseach some time ago whether he would communicate to the church authorities that if they are engaging in practical Christianity they should take an active role in ensuring that parades which end up in their churches do not exacerbate inter-communal strife en route. I might add that the great majority of churchmen take on board what I am saying, but regrettably some have exacerbated the atmosphere rather than the reverse.

A serious proposal has been put forward by Archbishop Robin Eames warranting serious consideration. I am sure the spirit in which it was put forward will be acknowledged by churchmen of all persuasions in relation to the marches and the difficulties to which they give rise.

Does the Tánaiste agree that this subject must be dealt with in the course of any talks if we want to revert to normality? Would he also agree that economic development, funding and so on have reached an impasse? Funding has been available over some 18 months but there is no evidence of any projects on the ground. Does he agree there is need for somebody to take the issue by the scruff of the neck and demonstrate an intention to make progress? People must be persuaded to apply themselves to that type of work, with the necessary leadership which has not yet been forthcoming. Following the initial all-inclusive talks, will his Department apply its attention to that matter?

It is extremely important that structures be established to facilitate joint actions, where necessary, but also with regard to parades, the subject with which we are now dealing. It is well known that many thousands of parades take place in a totally friendly, uneventful way but, unfortunately there are flash points which arise from inter-communal strife. I take it the Deputy is advocating that there should be structures in place so that negotiations and mediation can take place and that we respect the divergent rights of people who want to march and of others who do not want marches going through their localities. It is a difficult task but, along the lines advocated by Archbishop Eames, we can take steps in the right direction by establishing a commission or other body to examine all these matters.

Where else in the world are there applications submitted for 3,000 to 4,000 marches within a three-month period every year? Can anything be done through the RUC to limit this ridiculous number of marches? While the vast majority pass off peacefully, many remain antagonistic.

It is a matter of conflicting rights. We are fighting for rights on behalf of the community generally. Where people want the right to march, they should have it but, as I said in my reply, it is important that they also respect the rights of others, of residents and communities, who do not particularly subscribe to the tradition to which the marchers themselves subscribe.

The Tánaiste laid great store on the suggestion that there should be no domination in relation to the outcome of the talks process. Would he not agree that many of these marches — even those that do not include flash-points — are a demonstration of domination and accepted as such by those meant to receive the message of the march? Will the Minister, through the talks process, encourage a reduction of the charade that takes place annually in the North?

Therein lies the problem. I have a better understanding of the symbolism of parades having watched Frank McGuinness's "The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme". In calling the parades a charade the Deputy is denigrating the traditions of one side of the community. That is my view. We must respect their traditions. We are trying to win mutual respect for the traditions of both communities. There are displays of cultural identity on the Nationalist side to which the Unionists do not subscribe. We must establish mutual respect across communities in Northern Ireland if we are to achieve the objectives all Members want to achieve.