Signs of an about turn on parades' bill
It's looking good for the campaign against the proposed Public Assembly, Parades and Protests Bill.
The measure, if it comes into being, will set down new regulations for parades and public gatherings of 50 or more people. As it stands, the draft legislation represents a clear assault on civil liberties.
The draft has been put forward jointly by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
However, there are indications that Sinn Fein is about to retreat from the position set out in the document. It is likely that when it reaches the Assembly, the party's MLAs will support the removal of the clause giving any PSNI member the power to arrest without warrant anybody suspected by the PSNI officer of breaching the terms of the Act.
Likewise for the clause which would require 37 days notice of any meeting or parade.
The draft does include provision for late applications. In the case of an emergency, the organisers "must leave a copy of the notice with a member of the PSNI not below the rank of sergeant at the police station nearest to (a) the location of the proposed public meeting or protest meeting or (b) the start of the proposed public procession". The PSNI officer must refer the issue to the chief constable who must ensure that the notice is immediately referred to the 11-member Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Body, five of whom will meet and issue a directive.
With the best will in the world, and assuming the most efficient operation of the procedure, this would rule out protests called at short notice, such the 80-strong protest against the closure of the Foyleville residential home, the instant protests against the Israeli attack on Gaza in December 2008, or the walkout and meeting at Visteon in Belfast after the announcement of the factory's closure.
As an example of the type of meeting which would come under the measure, the Explanatory Guide issued by the Officer of First Minister and deputy First Minister cites a community protest against the closure of a sporting facility. The same provision would apply to the closure of a library, an amenities site, the A&E department of a hospital and so on.
By any definition, this is an attack on the right to protest.
(Some members of the two main parties have adopted a strategy of denying point-blank that the draft means what it says. Anyone in doubt can read the document and see for themselves: Google "Public Assemblies, Parades and Protest Bill Northern Ireland.")
To the extent that Sinn Fein is shifting its position in the face of the dismay of trades unions, community groups, anti-war and anti-racist campaigns, etc., the party to be congratulated. So are the various groups whose pressure has played a part in the shift taking place.
Under Stormont rules, Sinn Fein will have the power to signal its change of heart by vetoing the document as it stands. But the DUP would have to be on board if a new and significantly different document was to be drawn up and become the basis of law. Both parties have been left in no doubt that the measure, if it goes ahead, will be opposed by civil rights marches.
It is intriguing and perhaps ominous that the current draft was drawn up by a working group comprising three members each from the DUP and SF and put out for consultation with the authority of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Either some people have been asleep on the job or they have been trying it on.
If some of them are waking up to the reality, good.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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