Parades Commission ruling ambiguous: Police Ombudsman

Published Date: 21.06.2006

The Police Ombudsman's Office has said the Parades Commission should issue detailed maps when giving determinations about the routes of marches.

This is one of the recommendations arising from its investigation into the police handling of a Black Preceptory parade in Lurgan town centre in which the Office found that the Commission ruling contained such a degree of ambiguity that it could have been interpreted a number of ways.

The Police Ombudsman's Office found the PSNI breached a Parades Commission determination, but said that the ruling was unclear and that the police officer in charge acted in good faith.

The contested march was a "return" parade by the Royal Black Preceptory on the evening of July 13 2004 along the main thoroughfare in Lurgan town centre. Lurgan's main street consists of two left and two right hand lanes, with a series of parking bays and flowerbeds separating both carriageways.

The Royal Black Preceptory and its Lurgan District No 2 had proposed a route which would have taken them along the right hand lanes to the end of the town, turned and brought them back along part of the left hand lanes before marching off to its head quarters.

Their proposed route involved crossing the Church Street/Market Street end of the town centre viewed by some as a "Nationalist area." On July 8 the Commission issued a re-determination (following representation it had reviewed an earlier determination), which ruled that the parade should assemble at the junction of Market Street and Carnegie Street and from that point "resume its notified route."

The parade was prohibited from the area between William Street and Church Place. On July 9 a senior police officer in Lurgan met with Preceptory members to establish a joint understanding of the Parades Commission's determination.

On the evening in question the parade did not take the course which had been determined by the Parades Commission but took the route which had been agreed on July 9. The parade assembled in Carnegie Street, as opposed to at its junction with Market Street, as outlined in the determination. From there it turned left and marched along the left hand lanes towards the prohibited Church Place. It then turned and marched along the right hand lanes to that point where the Commission said the parade should have begun.

Following the events that day the Police Ombudsman's Office received a series of complaints from members of Sinn Fein and the SDLP about how police had handled the "return" parade. (Members of the Ulster Human Rights Watch had also complained about police handling of events earlier in the day).

Individual paraders had also complained that the police forced them to breach the determination. The Police Ombudsman's Office launched what was to prove a lengthy and at times difficult investigation. Its investigators spoke to and retrieved paperwork from the police. They also spoke to those making the complaints, to people who were present that evening and carried out a series of meetings with various members of the Parades Commission.

The police officer in charge of operation that evening told Police Ombudsman investigators he believed that if the Parades Commission had wanted the parade to march along the right hand side of Market Street only, the logical thing to have done would have been to indicate that it assemble in Market Street at its junction with Castle Lane - which is on the right hand side of the carriageway.

The police officer also argued that he had intended the parade to turn at a point between the Carnegie Street/Market Street junction and the point where it actually turned in Church Place, but a car had been parked in such a way as to prevent the parade from marching across the central carriageway to the right hand lanes.

Most Parades Commission members when interviewed by Police Ombudsman investigators disagreed with the police that their determination could have been interpreted in any way which would allow it to include the excluded Church Place area.

"I was extremely shocked to learn that the parade had in effect been allowed to parade in the wrong direction on the most contested part of the route and were also permitted in Carnegie Street and not at the assembly point clearly determined by the Commission at the junction of Market Street and Carnegie Street," said one Commissioner.

While this was the view of most Commissioners, they did not all share it. One member said he believed that, given that a car had blocked the determined route, the police officer in charge was entitled "for good operational reasons" to give direction which would involve a breach of the Parades Commission's determinations.

However, the other members of the Parades Commission did not share this view saying that the parade should never have turned left into Market Street.

The Police Ombudsman upheld the complaint that the policing of the parade was contrary to the intention of the Parades Commission determination. "The members of the Parades Commission have stated that their determination was clear and unambiguous: that the parade should assemble at the Carnegie /Market Street junction and thereafter resume the remainder of its notified route.

This did not happen. The parade assembled in Carnegie Street, turned left and marched westerly for a time in a direction opposite to the "remainder of its route". On that basis I must conclude that the parade was contrary to the determination," said Mrs O'Loan.

However the Police Ombudsman said she believed the senior police officer's interpretation was one possible reading of the determination. She said available evidence would suggest he acted in good faith.

"Whilst appreciating the requirement for the Parades Commission determination to provide the PSNI with a degree of flexibility with which to police the event and the complexities of drawing up a determination, I find in this instance that that the reviewed determination contained a degree of ambiguity, in that it did not provide specifically for what was permitted to happen between the junction of Market Street/Carnegie Street and the junction of Church Place/Market Street.

It is the Parades Commission's contention that the only direction the march was permitted to proceed was in an easterly direction. However, the determination did not say this," she said.

The Police Ombudsman also upheld a complaint that around 100 Black Preceptory supporters were allowed to block Lurgan's main street. "The main street, however, had not been re-opened to traffic at that point and was not due to be reopened until the parade completed its route," said Mrs O'Loan.

However, the Police Ombudsman rejected a complaint which said that the PSNI policed the parade in a partial manner because officers in jackets were used to police Loyalist supporters while 15 police Land Rovers and officers in full riot gear policed the Nationalists: "There is insufficient evidence to suggest that the deployment of officers was anything other than operational policing. A crowd of nationalists had attacked a train carrying Royal Black Preceptory members earlier in the day and police were deployed in a manner designed to best deal with the risk of further disturbances," said Mrs O'Loan.

The Police Ombudsman recommendations included a suggestion that the Parades Commission should append a detailed map when issuing a determination. It said the map should include the formation point, the route to be followed including the direction of the march, and other relevant information.

It recommended that in the absence of such a map, the police should establish with the Commission if their interpretation of the determination is correct. It recommended that, if time permits, the police should also liaise with those taking part in the parade and with representatives in the area to establish a common understanding of the route as determined by the Commission. It also recommended that contentious areas such as turn points are secured and that obstructing vehicles be removed where possible.

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