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Parades chief says decisions will get easier within 10 years

(Sharon O'Neill, Irish News)

As Sir Anthony Holland prepares to step down as head of the Parades Commission after a fraught six years at the helm, he speaks to Chief Reporter Sharon O'Neill in a rare interview.

Do you think the appointment of two loyal order figures to the new-look Parades Commission was designed to appease unionists?

They had that [loyal order figures] before in the commission that preceded mine, so it is not something that is new. It wouldn't have worked with my commission because of the nature and make-up of that commission.

I'm not anti the idea at all.

Do you think there will be any changes to the working of the commission?

That is set in tablets of stone to some extent. The legislation sets down how you can do things. There is the [1998 Public Processions] act and then the act enables parliament to pass what is called secondary legislation and they do that by way of statutory instruments.

They set out quite a detailed form of procedure, so there is not a lot that can change.

People talk about mediation being a possibility, but that has always been the case except the commission can't be the mediator – they can promote mediation by appointing people to mediate.

Do you believe new Parades Commission member David Burrows (of Portadown LoL, who has played a prominent role in the Drumcree dispute) should publicly tell Orangemen to abide by any rulings the body might make?

It would certainly be helpful to the new commission.

Obviously David will make up his own mind as to how he sees his duties. I think it's quite a bold move to have him on the commission and one that could be very useful.

It is an imaginative appointment and I think that David has the ability to rise to an opportunity that was presented to him and the way that he then addresses and relates to the Orange Order of which he is a member.

Mr Burrows has refused to rule out taking part in the Drumcree parade next summer – do you think his credibility as a commission member would be severely undermined if he did march?

If he is seen too much to be both involved in the process and then taking part in it... it seems slightly unfair I think to the interested observer, but only he can address it in his own mind.

From my long experience in what I call the law, I always felt if you were trying to make decisions affecting people, it is much better if you can be seen to be objective and stand back from the real issue that is at the subject of the adjudication process.

If you can do that you give people more confidence in what you are doing.

If you are going to cross the bridge, having someone from one part of the community on the commission who is plainly involved in parading, you are in effect probably accepting that occasionally he is going to take part in the activity of which he is adjudicating.

Would bringing someone like (Garvaghy residents spokesman) Breandan MacCionnaith onto the Parades Commission be a good idea to bolster nationalist support?

If Breandan MacCionnaith was on the commission it would certainly get the support of some nationalists. Plainly, the answer to that is yes.

Whether in fact he would want to do that I don't know.

Would you acknowledge that David Burrows's appointment is the equivalent to Breandan MacCionnaith being brought on board the commission?

At first sight the answer must be yes. In my own mind, I don't think it exactly is.

That is because of my knowledge of the parties involved over the past six years and while I can't disclose what that knowledge is – to do so it would be to breach confidences – I don't think in my own mind I would evaluate them exactly the same way.

The Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition has hit out at the absence of nationalist residents' representation on the body. What is your view?

If you had no nationalist representation that would be a perfectly reasonable question for them to put to the Secretary of State.

But there is nationalist representation, it just happens to be not the kind that they would personally prefer to see.

When will be the first test for the new commission?

The first decision is the one that occurs for a parade after January 25.

There continue to be weekly applications for the Portadown (Drumcree) march and they will have to make that decision.

Cynics have said David Burrows is likely to resign from the commission in a blaze of publicity in protest at any decision to block the Drumcree march. Do you think this is possible?

I don't think for one minute that would be a likely case scenario, because he has really thought it through.

I can't believe anybody applying for this post hasn't had a very serious thought process.

First of all there is the hassle factor which you have about security and dislike of people you meet on the street.

People have passed comments to me on the street which I won't care to repeat and I don't even live here. So he would have thought all this through.

When you have a new commission, it is only fair that the community should give it a chance. It is not there other than to try and help resolve the complex issues of parading.

After all, what is the alternative?

Has the government/NIO ever tried to influence the commission's decision-making process on contentious marches?


What was your relationship like with the government and British secretary of state Peter Hain?

The first I met Peter Hain was when he gave me a dinner to say farewell.

I have met very few secretaries of state. They always knew that my bottom line was 'leave me alone and I will do the best I can' and I was left alone.

Did you ever feel Mr Hain tried to undermine the commission and did you ever consider resigning over such tension?

I never considered resigning. I never knew of anything that was going on by Mr Hain to undermine the commission.

How do you believe the Orange Order behaved over the Whiterock march (which erupted into serious loyalist violence in September)?

If they didn't take part in the process which led to adjudication, I would believe that any form of reaction involving anything other than passive resistance is a bad idea.

My advice has always been that it is in their interests to engage (with the commission), if only on the basic ground of loyalty to parliament.

If you are actually engaging in an advisory process of argument with someone about an issue like parading, it doesn't make a great deal of sense to absent yourself from the arbitration process.

To do so for eight years and not to come to the commission and then at the same time to lambast it for its decisions strikes me as rather unhelpful to its members.

That is probably what some of the members, particularly in Northern Ireland, are beginning to feel – that they are not being heard because they are not going to the commission with their arguments about why they shouldn't have a parade in a particular location at a particular time.

Were some unionist leaders guilty of doing too little by failing to publicly urge people not to take to the streets?

It is not my position to criticise local politicians... I have always taken the view that leadership is difficult, particularly in some situations but you have to stick to what you believe as being the truth of the matter.

In these circumstances, any reasonable politician would want to be quite clear about advising members of the public to abide by the law and to behave correctly at all times.

Do you think DUP leader Ian Paisley should have publicly told people not to take to the streets?

I can't comment for Ian Paisley.

What do you think of unionist criticism of the commission over the march?

That is part and parcel of the process – you always got blamed every year Whiterock was no different.

I sometimes thought the criticism that was made was not particularly well informed, particularly in some cases, indicated a lack of objectivity.

In your opinion has the make-up of the Orange Order changed in recent years, with fewer 'respectable' unionists joining an organisation whose reputation has been severely tarnished?

The people I met, and I did meet people within the Orange Order unofficially, privately, seem to be perfectly reasonable and respectable people who felt constrained by the official position of the Orange Order.

Do you ever think the order will talk directly to the commission?

They are going to have to. The commission isn't going to go away unless there is a change of policy by the government and the act is repealed.

Do you think this will only take place if they get marching down the Garvaghy Road?

No, I don't think the two are related. I am not even so sure that the Garvaghy Road is the key area any more. I think it is more likely to be Ardoyne, which is more tricky.

Which marches next year would you be concerned about?

I would be worried sick about the Ardoyne and Whiterock. But you can't forecast what is going to happen, that is the irony.

Is the Orange Order guilty of complete hypocrisy by refusing to talk to republicans while openly engaging with loyalists?

I am not going to accuse the Orange Order of that under any circumstances.

Can you envisage a day when a Parades Commission is not needed?

Yes I can.

If I had to take a bet on when the parades decision would probably be much easier and sorted, I would choose sometime within the next five to 10 years – 2010 to 2015.

By then a lot of things would have moved on. You only have to see the difference here, six years since I came over.

Do you believe unionist criticism of the body has been unfair?

I think it has been not so much as unfair as in ignorance of the real facts. I think people, if they studied our decisions which were fairly detailed, would realise we couldn't afford to be unfair.

I took the job on knowing that we would be criticised and was fully prepared to accept that. As long as I was happy we were doing it as best we could.

Do you believe police handling of march operations have been adequate?

I wouldn't be critical of the police.

Has there ever been any tensions between the commission and the police?

Not tensions, sometimes we disagreed. Sometimes there have been times when we thought we would have wished it would have been done differently and sometimes they [police] have taken the view that they wish we hadn't made a particular decision.

I can't say there is one particular case where I went 'well that really was the nth degree over the top'.

This is your first interview in some time. Why have you chosen not to be more high profile in terms of defending the Parades Commission's position?

That was quite deliberate.

It wasn't a role this commission wanted to adopt by having lots of constant publicity. Another commission may have a different approach.

Any regrets?

No, I can't say I would do anything differently if I started again.

I have been very lucky to have six absolutely superb commissioners.

December 19, 2005

This article appeared first in the December 16, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News