The Parades Commission has insisted that four private meetings it held with the Secretary of State, Chief Constable and Justice Minister earlier this year were not to discuss parade determinations.
Details of the meetings were first made public by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers in the House of Commons where she told MPs of what she said she believed were unprecedented round-table talks between the senior policing and justice figures.
It has now emerged in the House of Lords that four such meetings took place between February and July.
Responding to a written question from Lord Empey, Baroness Randerson said on behalf of the Government that the first of the meetings was on February 4 and the last on July 3.
Lord Empey said that he believed the meetings brought into question the Parades Commission’s contention that it is entirely independent of political influence – but the commission insisted that the meetings did not discuss individual parading decisions.
Baroness Randerson said that the meetings had also been attended by “senior officials from the Northern Ireland Office and Department of Justice along with members of the PSNI Service Command Team and the secretary of the Parades Commission”.
She added: “These meetings provide participants with an opportunity to have a general discussion and to exchange views on progress of the parading season in Northern Ireland. No decisions are taken at these meetings and there are no discussions about operational matters relating to specific parades.”
Lord Empey said: “Given that the Secretary of State, the Justice Minister and the PSNI were meeting regularly months before the July 12th demonstration, what can possibly have been discussed that did not bring into question the independence of the Parades Commission, whose chairman was also present?
“The Parades Commission is supposed to be an independent body, but this must be open to question and its independence damaged if it was open to influence from a Cabinet Minister, an Executive Minister and the Chief Constable over such a prolonged period... Given other developments over recent weeks, there is a growing suspicion that the authorities had decided that now was the time to ‘teach the Unionists of Belfast a lesson.’”
The former UUP leader said that the arrival of hundreds of support police from Great Britain suggested there had been “a lot of forward planning”.