Second thoughts on the Public Assemblies Bill

It’s hardly surprising that the draft Public Assemblies Bill has been greeted with an avalanche of protest. Designed to deal with the counterpoint of traditional-type parades and protest, it makes the fundamental mistake of becoming a catch-all for most types of public assembly, like trade union demos and Eamon McCann’s Raytheon sit-in. I doubt if this will survive close scrutiny and may well be open to human rights challenge. Even so there is no absolute right to untrammelled protest without regard to consequences, unintended or otherwise.

However and with the health warning that I may have missed some elephant traps, this reads like an honest attempt to face all sides with their responsibilities, power sharing government, two new cross community public bodies, parades and protest organisers, local communities, police and ad hoc hangers on – and to do so with a new transparency. From now on, we are to be told what the local agreement  is and how it was reached. 

  • The devolution of P&J makes it inevitable that the Parades Commission is replaced and that local solutions should be made locally politically accountable. It has to be a good thing that the main parties are taking ultimate responsibility for their own constituencies and that FM and DFM are taking a lead.  This responsibility must now be widened to include the Justice ministry more prominently and the rest of the Executive. The role of the Assembly is reviewing lessons is clear and welcome.
  • As far as I can judge, the report recommends the best mediation and monitoring techniques with a code of conduct that conflict resolution theory can devise. Easy for armchair warriors to sneer at but good sense in practice.
  • It strongly promotes dialogue to reach agreement between two sides, a revolution from the worst days of Drumcree and many flashpoints since.
  • The much abused 37 day notice period is not absolute. Late and emergency procedures down to 3 days notice are provided for.
  • The illustration of a ” a protest at a leisure facility” is held up as oppressive. But anodyne examples like this are necessary to avoid political language in cross community solutions. You can substitute eirgi or loyal Sons up the Ballygo for yourself.  Admittedly real-life protests over leisure centres etc have to be classified differently from this legislation.
  • There’ll be lots of devils in the detail, like pinning responsibility on protest organisers for actions beyond their control. The draft tries to deal with that with only limited success.

Overall though, this consultation paper should be more welcomed than condemned. In the meantime how about a Slugger prize for a better acronym than PAPPB – a title as unfortunate as NIPS?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London