Parades Commission’s powers over marching season must be respected, warns NI Secretary Theresa Villiers
Good Friday Agreement has entrenched divisions, some MPs declare in Commons debate
Decisions by the Parades Commission in Northern Ireland during the marching season must be complied with, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire
Her declaration during a rare House of Commons debate about Northern Ireland came shortly after Democratic Unionist MP David Simpson warned that the commission has “become part of problem” as he raised fears that “we could be in for a very difficult summer”.
“There are real dangers for Northern Ireland if we see a reoccurrence of the disorder which has marred Northern Ireland’s marching season on too many occasions in years past. It damages Northern Ireland’s image abroad,” she told MPs.
The British government is “willing to listen” to reforms of the Parades Commission if they are put forward together by Northern Ireland’s political parties “but until such time as that is settled it is vital that the Parades Commission is supported”, she said.
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker, said that “huge strides forward” had been made since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, [but] we cannot be complacent about the challenges that remain.
“For us in Westminster, devolution should not mean disengagement. We have a role to play – and the government here has a responsibility to help keep Northern Ireland moving in the right direction,” he told the Commons.
The fact that the four-hour debate was the first to take place on the floor of the House of Commons since the formation of the Conservatives-Liberal Democrats coalition three years ago is illustrative of how the North has slipped off the agenda in London.
Northern Ireland’s MPs of all persuasions, and, indeed, some Conservatives united in disagreeing with this month’s move by British prime minister David Cameron to postpone a decision on cutting the North’s corporation rate to 12.5 per cent – matching the rate in the Republic.
Conservative MP, Laurence Robertson said delaying the decision until after the Scottish referendum in September 2014 was “not right”, though the Ms Villiers said “significant” technical and constitutional issues remain unresolved.
She adopted a conciliatory tone responding to fears from Democratic Unionist MP, Nigel Dodds that future funding from the treasury would be used “to blackmail” the North’s Assembly and Executive into accepting unwelcome policies.
“Put simply, it’s a two way street – the greater the Executive’s ambition, the more the UK government will be able to do to help. This is about partnership and working together and I’m optimistic about the chances,” she went on.
Saying that the Belfast Telegraph had warned that Mrs Villiers’ original remarks were “tantamount to blackmail”, Mr Dodds said a “different interpretation” had been put on her remarks in the North.
“It is about new ways to support the Northern Ireland economy rather than any subtraction of existing support given to Northern Ireland,” said Mrs Villiers.
Both the SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell and Alliance Party MP, Naomi Long agreed that the failures as well as the successes of the Good Friday Agreement should be noted on its 15th anniversary.
“The solutions found to overcome the divisions that existed between the parties in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement “have in many ways fixed those divisions and given permanence to those divisions,” said Ms Long.
“It was chosen as a means of managing our divisions, but in many ways it has fixed those divisions and given permanence to them in a way that I believe is unhelpful. It has almost incentivised those divisions.”