Submission on the proposed Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill

12 July 2010

The Communist Party of Ireland welcomes the opportunity to comment on the above bill. In doing so we are concerned that the working out of an agreement aimed specifically at “parading issues” has lurched towards catch-all legislation that is disproportionate and challenges the demo­cratic right of all citizens to meet publicly.
     1. We are aware of the unease felt by a number of groups and organisation about this draft bill. These groups represent a range of views: churches, community groups, trade union and politi­cal organisations. We share these concerns.
2. We believe that society is ill served by the introduction of laws that remove or dilute hard-won democratic and human rights. Given the fact that we have just come through a forty-year period of civil unrest and conflict, fed by a lack of democratic rights, the Northern Ireland Assembly should consider very seriously the results of any legislation that would diminish such rights.
     3. If enforced, the bill will lead to the criminalisation of some citizens of Northern Ireland. In a situ­ation where we are in a peace process, the last thing that is needed is laws that will lead to volatile situations, fines, and imprisonment.
4. We are particularly concerned that workers and communities that want to protest against what are predicted to be some of the worst cuts in the jobs and public services we have seen in a gener­ation will have such protests unnecessarily curtailed should the draft proposals become law. This would happen because of the bill’s proposed restrictions and requirements in rela­tion to the numbers involved in such protest and the period of notice required before it can take place.
     5. In terms of the numbers, the choice of an assembly of fifty persons being subject to such restric­tion seems entirely arbitrary, while the proposal for thirty-seven (working) days’ notice prior to protest totally fails to recognise that such a time limit is unreasonably beyond the timings relating to the issue about which a protest is likely to take place. For example, it is not uncommon for employees to be told at extremely short notice that their work is closing, or for communities to be informed of the imminent closure of a local facility. The fact that the explanatory note on the public meeting clauses cites protest about the closure of a local sports facility reinforces our view that this bill’s indiscriminate nature attacks not just the diffi­culties around contentious gatherings but the concept of protest itself. In this context, we believe the bill is unworkable, placing severe restrictions on static public meetings, and if un­altered risks unnecessarily escalating tension surrounding peaceful protests.
6. We support the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s comments in relation to high­light­ing the areas of the bill that lack legal clarity, particularly where existing national or inter­national law already details rights in relation to these matters.
     7. On this point, while we agree that communities and individuals need protection from sectarian and racist actions—inappropriate and deliberately provocative parades, for example—we do not think that this draft bill properly examines the use of existing legislation in order to achieve these ends. For example, there is rarely, if ever, enforcement of current incite­ment legislation that exists to address situations where displays, behaviour etc. show that provocation is clearly the intention.
8. In presenting these views, we recognise that the proposed bill contains an extensive range of issues that need to be dealt with, for example the Code of Conduct, appointments procedures for the decision-making body, etc. The Communist Party of Ireland believes that the sub­mis­sion put forward by the Northern Ireland Human Right Commission raises important ques­tions that need to be answered regarding this proposed bill.
     9. There are sufficient powers under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order (1987) whereby a senior police officer can place conditions on public meetings where it is reasonably believed that they are intended to result in serious disorder or the intimidation of others. However, the jurisdiction of the Parades Commission under the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act (1998) only applies to “processions,” including parades and related counter-protests.
10. The present draft legislation proposes extending the jurisdiction of the adjudication mechan­ism to all outdoor “public meetings” of more than fifty persons in a public place.
     11. The term “public meeting” is not defined in the proposed legislation, although it is defined under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order as “a meeting held for the purpose of the dis­cussion of matters of public interest or for the purpose of the expression of views on such matters.”
12. The draft bill also provides that a decision of the Adjudication Panel ‘must have regard to human rights” as well as any previous failure to comply with the Code of Conduct.
     13. Decisions of the Adjudication Panel should be determined by human rights principles, par­ticu­larly the principles incorporated in article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 (1) states that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.” Article 11 (2) qualifies this right: “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.”

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