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?

  • VI Lurgan


    I agree that the Bill is a fair attempt to deal with the Parades issue. The problem is exactly that it has been established as a catch-all and as such, cannot be acceptable. While parts are progressive, this should not be at the cost of seriously curtailing the right to assemble. This is not a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The terms of reference set up under Hillsborough Agreement have been far exceeded and the focus, ie Parades, has been lost.

    Bin the Bill and start again

  • If this is truly an “honest attempt” then we must seriously question the competence of those involved. Did one person at any point hold up their hand and say “hold on lads, might this be infringing on a few human rights?”. If so, then those who carried on regardless are negligent at best. If not, then we’re either dealing with a shocking case of groupthink or a bunch of dribbling idiots.

  • Neil

    It’s a dishonest attempt, IMO. While dealing with the parades and counter protest issues, they’ve expanded their remit to include, well, just about anything really. I would imagine that it’s aimed at Eirigi, and any other Republican groups which now are a common enemy for both the DUP and SF. This will have the effect of bolstering their support.

  • VI Lurgan


    While it will certainly raise opposition across the divide, I can’t see it bolstering support for Dissidents and if it does, AG’s reference to ‘dribbling idiots’ might be more appropriate

  • Neil

    I would say two things in reply, first certain groups might not be dissident Republicans in the sense of being violent groups, but still may be the source of discomfort to SF. I mentioned Eirigi there, and I am not someone in the know so I have to accept that they are not aligned with any violent group.

    Secondly I’d say that the use of powers like this to crack down on any group will generate some support and sympathy, IMO.

  • wj

    “The much abused 37 day notice period is not absolute. Late and emergency procedures down to 3 days notice are provided.”

    So if a family is subjected to a racist ot sectarian attack, those who wish to express solidarity, as with the Roma families last year, will have to go to the family in question and say, yes, we wish to express our community’s outrage at what has happened, but we have to wait three days.

    Likewise, there are many instances of workers being called into meetings to be told that they are no longer needed.

    Not 37 days, not three days, in some of these cases, workers were given just a few hours notice.

    The 3-day clause is just to cover the backsides of the DUP and SF.

  • Brian Walker

    First, apologies for the multiple posting. Somethng to do with slow computer running..

    I think they may have got lost in devising new procedures for defusing familiar confrontations on the one hand, and the need to avoid definitions like “ traditional” and “political” on the other. In the end you can only define what’s political by proscription and that’s the last thing they wanted to do. So their formula just grew and grew until it took over everything. If the scope is limited to replacing the Parades Commission it’s probably workable. But leave everything else alone.

    The draft could even make policing of all sorts of demos and protest much more difficult by trying to impose an unnecessary bureaucracy on them which they might want mischievously to defy.

    This draft is not even a draft Bill but a document for consultation, so there’s plenty of room for change. I’d be amazed if the Attorney General, the PPS or the PSNI approved it. I’d like to know though and hope this emerges in debate.

  • Song for the Republican Convention

    the three day rule requires the involvement of the chief constable:

    “Emergency procedure: … (3) The Chief Constable must ensure that the notice is immediately referred to PAPPB.”

    So if you want to protest at news of job losses or a school closure you definitely can’t for 3 days.

    Then between 3 and 37 days of the closure/job losses your request requires the direct involvement of the Chief Constable.

  • Munsterview

    I have already extensively posted my views previously so a few comments will do.

    Either this is the greatest try on the main power grouping, S.F and D.U.P have come up so far for hobbling all opposition or like Tony Blair and his circle of cronies in New Labour when bulldozing the Iraq war through, there is no longer any feel or need of concern for the ‘folk on the street’ by either party.

    It is inexcusable; there is already a necessary democratic deficit built into the Assembly forced to use artificial means to make an artificial regional parliament work with some semblance of minority representation. This proposed measure if enacted will now hover up all democracy from the streets.

    Not one single demonstration of the hundreds that I was involved in or the tens of thousands Sinn Fein collectively took part in during their rise to power over the last four decades would be allowed under these rules.

    Republicans were supposed to be climbing to power for all Nationalist Ireland, not pulling the ladder up and closing the trapdoor after themselves once they had ascended !.

    As for the ‘Big Man’ in his day, imagine him applying thirty two days ahead for permission to hop a snowball off Lemass.

  • Phil Watson

    For anyone to suggest that a draft legislative paper attempting to curtail the right of human beings to protest should be “welcomed” shows a complete loss of touch from reality. At this point it is healthy to note that governments, even partitionist assemblies, are elected by the people for the people and they (governments) are supposed to be subservient to the people! Of course I am living in never-neverland but all the same according the rules of “democracy” that is what is supposed to be truth! What is happening is that we are allowing ourselves to be imprisoned in our own country in a prison without bars by allowing the drip drip effect lose of our civil rights in order for a perceived sense of security. As Ben Frank said: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”
    We are freely handing our lives over to governments to do with what they will as we haven’t the time to deal with them ourselves. Sure with both partners having to work to keep a roof over the heads of the kids who has the time to protest so we may as well trust in the state to do what best serves us and to keep us safe! That is the logic being implied by the above writer and it is this logic that Orwell tried to warn us about, clearly Orwell’s points have been ignored. This logic normally spews from the mouth of someone who believes that we should be thankful of living under a police state as if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear – the government is here to protest you!

    “THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

    THEN THEY CAME for me
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

  • Phil Watson

    *Spelling error – should read*

    the government is here to protect you!

  • Munsterview

    I already more than past comment on this and my thoughts have not changed in the past month despite Sinn Fein’s attempts to back-pedal on this one, they are exposed and should be held accountable.