Interesting that just as a coalition between the Lib Dems and Conservatives with civil liberties being one of the key issues takes power in Westminster the joint DUP/Sinn Fein committee report on what replaces the current parades commission, is being chewed over in public (the report was delivered during the election campaign period). Eamonn McCann:
“Public meeting” is defined as “a meeting of 50 or more persons held in a public place to which the public or a section of the public are invited to attend”.
The example chosen in the guide to illustrate the working of the new measure is instructive: “If a group wanted to protest against the closure of a local sports facility this … would fall under the definition of a public meeting and would therefore be subject to the notification procedures for a public assembly outlined in clause 13.” Closure of a local sports facility … a far cry from Orange parades and residents’ protests.
Clause 13 tells that a campaign to save the sports facility – or library, or leisure centre, or residential home – would have to give 37 days’ notice of any planned protest. So notification of a rally scheduled for November 1 next would have to be submitted by September 24. Knee-jerk action to save services will be outlawed. The scope of the proposed law goes beyond parades issues. It has implications for trades unions, community organisations and campaigns.
There has been no public explanation – much less discussion – of how the DUP/SF working group established at Hillsborough came to devise not a remodelled Parades Commission, but an elaborate bureaucratic machine for managing and curtailing the right of citizens to voice protest.
Apart from the obvious question of how such a draconian piece of legislation comes from two parties who’s histories are steeped in public protest, there is the other of whether in the internet age when it is possible to organise public protests at the drop of a hat. And if there is to be a 37 days notice, what about trade union protests (for industrial actions or peace as with the Masserine killings)?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty