CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics in Public - Freedom of Assembly and the right to Protest (Report No. 8)

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Politics in Public

Freedom of Assembly and the Right to Protest


Commentary: The Public Processions (N.I.) Bill

Clause 1 & 2 - The Parades Commission and its Duties.
The Bill sets out the duties of the Commission:

  • to promote understanding on issues concerning parades;
  • to mediate and promote mediation;
  • to issue determinations on particular public processions;
  • to monitor the conduct of public processions;
  • to keep under review the operation of the act.

Clauses 3, 4 & 5 - Procedures, Guidelines and Codes of Conduct.
The Commission is required to produce a Code of Conduct giving guidance to those in processions, Procedural Rules by which the practices of the Commission will be regulated, and a set of Guidelines, under which determinations made by the Commission will be made.

Clause 6 - Notification of a Procession.
Requires that advance notification of a procession be given 28 days before the event, although there is provision to give shorter notice if there was good reason for not giving 28 days. Funeral processions or other processions of a class that might be specified by the Secretary of State are excluded. If a procession takes place without due notice being given, or differing in important respects from the information given in the notice, then an offence has been committed (up to 6 months in jail), unless the accused can prove that he did not knowingly fail to comply, or that the circumstances were beyond his control, or that he was complying with instructions from a member of the RUC not below the rank of inspector.

Clause 7 - Determinations
The Commission may issue a determination on the conditions under which a parade may take place under the Guidelines which shall take into account:

  • the possibility of public disorder and likely damage to property;
  • disruption to the life of the community
  • impact on relationships within the community
  • failure of organisers to comply with the Code of Conduct (presently or previously);
  • the desirability of holding a procession customarily held along a particular route.

A person guilty of not complying with conditions imposed can be jailed for up to 2 years unless he can prove circumstances beyond his control or that he was acting under direction from a member of the RUC not below the rank of Inspector.

Clause 8 - The Chief Constables leave to Appeal
Allows for the Chief Constable to make an appeal to the Secretary of Stare to review a determination made by the Commission. She may revoke, amend or confirm the determination having consulted the Commissions Guidelines and will notify the Commission who can no longer issue a determination on that specific procession.

Clause 9 - Powers of the RUC on the day.
Confirms the RUCs powers under common law to rake action to deal with a breach of the peace. This effectively gives the RLJC powers to deal with a public order situation on the day, regardless of a determination made by the Commission.

Clause 10 - Powers of the Secretary of State
The Secretary of State retains powers to prohibit a particular procession, type of procession or all processions in particular area taking into account:

  • the possibility of public disorder and likely damage to property;
  • disruption to the life of the community;
  • impact on relationships within the community;
  • the demands made on the police and military.

If possible the Secretary of State is to consult the Commission, the Chief Constable and Police Authority and any decision made revokes previous determinations made by the Commission.

Clause 11 - Registration of Bands
Provisions remains on the legislation for the registration of bands.

Clause 12 - Control of Alcohol
This gives the RIJC specific powers over the control of alcohol at public processions. Alcohol can be confiscated from those in the vicinity of an event and also from a passenger vehicle carrying passengers to a place in the vicinity of a procession.

Clause 13 - Protesters
Any protester that attempts to prevent or hinder a lawful procession by

  • hindering, molesting or obstructing a procession;
  • acting in disorderly way towards a procession;
  • behaving offensively and abusively towards participants in a procession;
  • can be a guilty of an offence receiving up to 6 months imprisonment.

Other Points to Note:

  • There is provision for the number of Commissioners including the chairman to be raised from five to seven.
  • The quorum for a Commission meeting is three with the Chairman having a casting vote if necessary.
  • Staff for the Commission are provided by the civil service of Northern Ireland or of the United Kingdom.
  • The Commission will produce an annual report.

Commentary: The Parades Commission Procedural Rules

These set out the steps that the Parades Commission will take in making determinations about disputes. It assumes that some disputes will continue in areas where parades have been contentious over the past three years. The Commission will begin work in addressing these areas as soon as is practical and will not wait for the 28 days notification.

The work of the Commission is set out in a number of stages:

1. Gathering Information
Background information will be gathered by Authorised Officers (employees or field workers) who will aim to build relationships with local groups and interested parties. The information will include the details of past parades, the demographic mix of local communities and key points on the route of possible parades.

2. Taking Evidence
Members of the Commission will then take evidence, both written and oral, from as wide a range of local people as are willing to offer it. All evidence, both written and oral will be treated as confidential. The Commission can also seek out the opinion of specific individuals, groups or organisations.

3. Preliminary View
Having gathered information and taken evidence the Commission will offer a preliminary view of all contested parade locations. This will indicate whether any and what type of conditions might be imposed on any or all of the parades in a location. This preliminary view will not be legally binding.

4. Making Formal Determinations
If disputes persist despite local discussions and in the face of the preliminary view, then the Commission will review the situation. It may take fresh evidence up to 10 working days prior to the parade as well as taking advice from the RUC, before issuing a legally binding determination. Where possible determinations will be issued five working days in advance of a parade. Interested parties will be notified of the determination in writing.

5. Review of Determinations
In exceptional circumstances the Commission will consider fresh evidence and may reverse or revoke its initial determination.

Commentary: The Parades Commission Guidelines

The Guidelines provide the framework with which the Parades Commission (PC) will balance the conflicting rights of parade participants and the wider community.

  • They emphasise that the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are important, but not unlimited, rights.
  • The exercise of these rights brings with it responsibilities to the wider community.
  • These include a responsibility to seek resolution to disputes by peaceful means and a responsibility to abide by the law.
  • Such responsibilities apply to those parading and to those protesting.

In making determinations the Commission must address five principal factors:

1. The threat of public disorder
The Commission will rely on the advice of the RIJC and then consider public order alongside other factors.

2. Disruption to the life of the community.
All public events cause some disruption, so the Commission will have to balance the significance of the parade and the disruption that will be caused. Disruption should not necessarily stop the exercise of the right to parade. The Commission will judge whether the disruption caused is disproportionate to the significance of the procession to those participating. The Commission will consider: the duration of the procession and the degree of restriction placed on local residents, on businesses, on public amenities and on places of worship. In general, commercial areas will be regarded as neutral zones and the rights of parade participants will be upheld.

3. Impact on relationships within the community.
This will involve consideration of the nature of the route; the possibility of alternative routes; the local demographic balance; local sensitive sites; and the purpose of the parade. The Parades Commission will also consider the frequency and size of parades in a given area over the year and attempt to judge whether the parade is likely to create a sense of fear or intimidation for residents. It will judge the purpose of the parade; numbers taking part; past conduct of the parade; the regalia carried; the nature and number of bands. The Parades Commission will consider how far concerns of other members of the community have been addressed by parade organisers. The Commission will also consider the wider implications for Northern Ireland of any parade, both in the past and in the future.

4. Compliance with the Code of Conduct
The Commission will consider how far the parade organisers have been willing to comply with the Code of Conduct and how successful this had been on previous parades.

5. Tradition
The Commission recognises the importance given to long-standing parades and will weigh this along with other factors.

Commentary: The Parades Commission Code of Conduct

This document emphasises the responsibilities that parade organisers have towards the wider community. Much of it will be regarded as standard practice for the loyal orders.

The emphasis in this section is on the responsibility that parade organisers have (a) to provide information to, and (b) to address the concerns of people living and working on the route of a parade. In general it recommends providing advance information to allow people to make arrangements for any potential disruption the parade might cause. It recommends that organisers should:

  • notify local businesses of times of parades.
  • liaise with local places of worship.
  • notify residents on the route of planned parades (by notices in the local papers or using fly sheets) and attempt to address concerns of residents particularly those of another cultural identity. A contact person should be identified for the purposes of liaison.
  • liaise with police and provide adequate stewards capable of dealing with emergency situations.

2. Timing
It is essential that during the hours of darkness parades should begin and end at the times specified on the 11/1 form.

3. Bands
It is the responsibility of the parade organisers to ensure that all bands adhere to the terms of their contract and are aware of any conditions that have been imposed on the parade.

4. Stewards
An appropriate number of trained stewards should be provided. The number required will be determined by the scale of the parade. Stewards should be identified and identifiable.

5. Providing Notice
The new law requires that at least 28 days notice is given of parades. But the Commission sees no reason why longer notice should not be given to help general planning for events.

6. The Parade
On the parade itself the Commission again emphasises the need for well briefed stewards who are aware of any conditions or restrictions. Participants should also be aware of arrangements for a ‘peaceful and rapid dispersal'.

7. Protest Meetings
Organisers wishing to hold a protest meeting are required, where practical, to give 14 days notice.

General Behaviour at Parades and Protests

Appendix A relates to general standards of behaviour on parades - emphasis is on responsibility to the rest of the community. It largely confirms existing parading practice.

Sections B. Dress, F. Music and G. Flags etc. all relate to the prohibition of displays of emblems, regalia and other symbols related to proscribed organisations.

Section H. Stewarding - reinforces the responsibility to provide trained, recognisable and responsible stewards.

Section K. organisers are responsible for ensuring that participants are aware of conditions imposed on parades.

Appendix B - Refers to areas of greater sensitivity and requirements of more respectful behaviour at places of worship, war memorials and cemeteries, interface areas and in areas of ‘other cultural identities’. The emphasis is on the need for dignified and respectful behaviour.

Appendix C - Relates to standards of behaviour during protests against parades.

Section A. emphasises having due regard for the rights of others, avoiding the use of words and behaviours which could be perceived as provocative, threatening or abusive.

Sections B. and D. refer to the proscription of paramilitary uniforms or the displaying of flags of proscribed organistaions.

Section C. Location, demands that protesters should not obstruct a legal parade or the free flow of traffic.

Section D. Alcohol, suggests that an organiser of a protest should take necessary measures to remove a participant under the influence of alcohol.

Section F. Stewarding, reinforces the responsibility to provide trained, recognisable and responsible stewards.

Section G. H. and I.point out that organisers should ensure that all participants are informed of any conditions imposed by the police, ensure co-operation with the police, and disperse the protest quickly at the end.

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[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

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