The lawyer caught between a rock and a hard place

Tony Holland, the new chairman of Northern Ireland's Parades Commission, explains why only a softly, softly approach will get the job done
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The Independent Online

The Northern Ireland Parades Commission found itself in an even more uncomfortable position than usual at the end of this month after it faxed, in error, a list containing the names of 39 Protestant bandsmen to a member of Sinn Fein. In Ulster's highly charged atmosphere, it was the sort of slip that the commission's new chairman, Tony Holland, could do without.

The Northern Ireland Parades Commission found itself in an even more uncomfortable position than usual at the end of this month after it faxed, in error, a list containing the names of 39 Protestant bandsmen to a member of Sinn Fein. In Ulster's highly charged atmosphere, it was the sort of slip that the commission's new chairman, Tony Holland, could do without.

Predictably, there were calls for Mr Holland, the English solicitor newly appointed as head of the commission, to go. But with his renowned unflappability, he apologised for the error while declining to hand over a resignation letter.

Ministers at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Office must have heaved a relieved sigh. The Government had been recruiting since October 1999 to replace the first chairman, Sir Alistair Graham. By the end of December, no candidate of sufficient calibre had been found. That is, until they approached Mr Holland, the former senior partner of Plymouth-based Foot & Bowden and one-time president of the Law Society of England & Wales.

At the time Mr Holland was seeing out the dying days of the Personal Investment Authority where he had been principal ombudsman since 1997. The PIA was about to be swallowed up by the new Financial Services Authority "superombudsman". Mr Holland was rumoured to have been slightly miffed that he hadn't bagged the new post - which went to another solicitor, the former Insurance Ombudsman Walter Merricks - and he was clearly looking for a high-profile posting.

But when the headhunters came knocking with the suggestion of the Parades Commission job, he was initially dubious. "I thought I didn't have much to offer in Northern Ireland," recalls Mr Holland.

In many ways, the 61-year-old can be seen as an ideal candidate for the Parades Commission chair. Being English, Mr Holland is an outsider - or a "blow-in" in the parlance of the province - with no sectarian baggage. He is discreet about his own religious background, describing himself as being a Christian and nothing more.

That level of discretion is wise in a man who holds a position which must be one of the hottest spots in the cauldron of UK society and politics. And there is no hotter time in Northern Ireland than during the summer marching season when the Parades Commission receives some 3,600 applications. Its policy is to review and adjudicate only on those applications which are considered contentious, roughly about 10 per cent of the total. Of those, about 150 relate broadly to marches around Drumcree, which over the past few years has witnessed violent conflicts between Orangemen and Catholic residents.

Having experienced his first marching season, Mr Holland says the approach he and his commission adopted was more radical than the policy of the previous commissioners. Although full of praise for his predecessor and the previous commission, Mr Holland takes an entirely different view of the task of making binding decisions on marches in Ulster. "We could just go on, as I imagine some people would prefer that we did, saying either 'yes' or 'no' to each application which we have to consider. That's fine, but if you do that you've created a form of a court which just goes about its business every day.

"I maintain that part of our brief must be to try to arrive at a situation where there are fewer and fewer contentious parades and to provide some kind of structured route map as to how to avoid contentious parades. Therefore, we don't just sit as some kind of quasi-judicial body making judicial decisions but actually try to be positive and pro-active."

He points to the Drumcree decision as a prime example of the new ethos at the commission. "We decided we would make a different kind of determination, not the usual two or three pages for the main parade on 9 July. We wanted to give a clear indication of what we think should be the future position for Drumcree and the Garvaghy Road without predetermining what future decisions might be."

In the end, the commission spent hours producing a 14-page determination and presented it at a news conference. "The Orange Order was thrown back on its heels because, suddenly, we were setting the tone and they had to try to come up with something constructive," he says.

All determinations handed down by the commission are capable of being reviewed if any concerned party requests it and, predictably, that was the case with the Drumcree decision. That creates the tricky problem of the commission effectively acting as its own appeal court. Mr Holland's years of experience as a practising solicitor are a bonus when it comes to negotiating this potential legal minefield. And while there is no "in-house" team of legal advisers available to the commission, the former Northern Ireland High Court judge, Sir John Pringle, is also a commissioner.

That legal expertise will be highly valuable when the Human Rights Act comes into force at the beginning of October. Mr Holland confidently predicts that the Parades Commission's position and its determinations could both be the subjects of challenges under the new legislation. He points out that articles 8, 9 and 10 of the European Convention cover the right to parade, although they do not provide for an absolute right.

"Article 6 is also relevant because we are possibly determining people's civil rights. And article 6 says people are entitled to a fair and public hearing in relation to determining their civil rights. At the moment, we never have hearings. We see people, we see everyone who wants to see us, but not all at once with opposing sides equally represented. But there isn't a strict definition of the term "hearing" for the purposes of the act, so no one knows whether we will be caught by art' 6."

Any legal challenge under the act would be a welcome one, according to Mr Holland. "It is inevitable because the feelings are very high. And it is right that it should happen because if we are getting it wrong then we need to be corrected, and if we are getting it right it would be reassuring to know that we are."

Even though it is a part-time post - the commission is meant to meet on average twice a week, although during the marching season it convenes more often - it must be a physically and emotionally draining one. None the less, Mr Holland maintains "it is a fantastic job. But the most difficult aspect is trying to keep the thing moving forward. I like to see progress, but I realise that this is a softly, softly thing.

"You've got to keep people on board. And above all you must realise that people over there have lived with these problems for a long, long time and don't need to be told by some outsider how to go about solving it. All you can do is be a conduit for a solution."

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