The Community Relations Council has responded to the public consultation on the Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill.
The Community Relations Council welcomes the political initiative of the Executive to resolve the complex issue of parades and protests. However it does have ongoing concerns that a number of important issues require further more detailed attention:
1. The extension of legislation to all public assemblies is fraught with risk for broader civil liberties and risks unnecessary confrontation between the authorities and civil society. Bringing other issues into the realm and scope of legislation may have an internal logic, but there is a risk that it is a mechanism to avoid a more fundamental resolution of the political and cultural issues at stake in parades and protests.
2. There is a risk that the current proposals have the potential to be unnecessarily complex and costly. We are concerned that the system should not slow down the process due to the level of administrative work required.
With these concerns in mind, it recommends that further consideration be given to the proposed legislation and further discussion on encouraging interdependence and mutual respect for cultural diversity. CRC would be keen to participate in this discussion as part of a determined effort to build a shared and better future. The imminent policy on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration may offer an opportunity to further this debate. If parading is to be resolved, then success in achieving political stability must be matched by a new climate of accommodation and tolerance which impacts on public space, cultural celebration and our cultural and educational institutions.
CRC Chair Tony McCusker adds:
”It is important that we consider the competing rights of all relating to parades in Northern Ireland. The proposed legislation goes well beyond the task of including protests and assemblies and does so in a way that may threaten or curtail civil liberties. The Council urges the Executive to re-focus on the parades issue and on how we can create a climate of tolerance and respect for all.”
The Community Relations Council is a registered charity which aims to promote a peaceful and fair society based on reconciliation and mutual trust. It is a development agency for peace in Northern Ireland and provides advice and support to community relations initiatives in the voluntary and community sector.
ThePublic Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill currently being considered stems from the Hillsborough Agreement which established a committee to consider the competing rights of all relating to parades in Northern Ireland in respect of notifications of parades and objections raised to these. Although this task relates solely to parades, the bill now includes protests and assemblies.
The draft bill places restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly in Northern Ireland by requiring organisers of any parade, protest or assembly in a public space to give 37 days notice of any gathering where 50 people or more will attend. Under the proposed legislation non compliance is deemed a criminal offence and could lead to a prison sentence.
· The Community Relations Council believes that the bill may be construed as an attempt to curtail liberties and rights if it does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights which provides a right to peaceful assembly and states that:
‘No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.’