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Northern Ireland's Public Assemblies Bill is a grave threat to civil liberties

The Public Assemblies Bill proposed in Northern Ireland threatens the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
Robbie Best
17 June 2010

Protests against racist attacks, displays of solidarity for those killed in conflict and healthy debate on local and national issues in a public forum are all under threat from new legislation put forward by the Northern Ireland Executive. 

The proposed Public Assemblies Bill, put forward by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (OFMDFM) on April 20 2010 is legislation designed to help deal with contentious parades by a review process which will supposedly draw on all parts of the community in an effort to avoid tension and potential violence.

Where the legislation is drawing criticism is its proposal to extend this legislation to all public gatherings of 50 people or more, requiring a notice period of 37 days.

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This is seen by many as an attack on certain civil liberties - the right to peaceful assembly and an attack on freedom of expression, both guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Under Article 11 of the ECHR, authorities are implored to demonstrate that an infringement on the right to peaceful assembly, which this legislation certainly is, is necessary in a democratic society or is in the valid public interest. No such justification has been forthcoming from OFMDFM.

There has also been no explanation as to how the seemingly arbitrary figure of 50 persons was decided upon and why such draconian measures will be taken to suppress those peacefully exercising their democratic right to support their fellow human beings.

We can also call into question the potential independence of any adjudication body that will oversee the issuing of permission to demonstrate. There has been no information given as to how this body will be formulated, appointed or ratified. We as citizens are in the dark as to whether this body will need to be compliant with Article 6 of the ECHR – a right to a fair trial.

We have no idea as to the basic, fundamental principles that will guide this body. Whether they will be held accountable, if there is a fully transparent appeals process, how accusations of discrimination and bias will be handled.

While there is certainly need for a strong and transparent review process for contentious parades due to their history of, and potential for, violence and public disorder the extension of this legislation to people who wish to engage in a healthy, organic, peaceful and ultimately democratic enterprise is frankly ridiculous.

Whether you want to protest against the BNP at the BBC or support their right to a platform, whether you want to protest the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan or you are disgusted by those who don’t support the troops, take to the streets and shout about it, while you still can.

For those wishing to get more information on the PAB, they can visit the Facebook group which is growing in popularity and already has over 5000 members. 

Robbie Best campaigns with Amnesty Northern Ireland.

(Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/davidChief)

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