Proposed legislation being introduced by the Six County administration, ostensibly to deal with the issue of contentious sectarian marches, is to controversially include all public demonstrations and protests involving trade unions, political activists, community organisations and various campaign groups.
All such gatherings involving 50 or more persons and which take place in a public space will be required to give 37 days prior notification of their intention to hold such a gathering to the British government in the Six Counties.
The term ‘public space’ is defined in the proposed legislation as meaning “any road or footway or any other place, apart from a building, to which the public or a section of the public has access”. Such a wide-reaching definition will include the grounds of both government and council buildings, or the grounds and entrances to factories, workplaces and public service establishments, such as schools and hospitals.
The legislation will impact upon and restrict the ability of trade unions and others to mobilise demonstrations in support of workers. A case in point to illustrate this is the stance taken last year by trade unions, community groups and political parties of the left in mobilising rallies at very short notice in support of the workforce at the Visteon plant in Belfast.
Under the proposals set out in the draft legislation, entitled Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests, the state would have to be notified of such rallies 37-days in advance and the organisers would have to specify which trade unions or community groups would also be taking part. Failure to do so could result in jail terms of up to six months for the organisers and any participants.
Pickets of workplaces by trade unions which involve more than 50 workers will also find that these, too, come under the new laws.
White-line pickets, a feature widely used by many campaign groups and one that has been used almost exclusively by political activists within republican and nationalist communities in the Six Counties with great impact, to organise effective and spontaneous public demonstrations to highlight incidents which often require a speedy and immediate response at very short notice will also fall under the remit of the new legislation.
With major cuts in public expenditure already underway and even greater cuts being forecast in the aftermath of the upcoming British election, it is clear that the Six-County administration at Stormont is intent on using the proposed legislation, originally designed to deal with the problems caused by sectarian marches, to create a bureaucratic web aimed at negating community-based or trade union opposition to those cuts and to both the resulting job losses and cut-backs in essential public services which will undoubtedly follow.
The proposed legislation, which was published in draft form last Tuesday [April 20], is one of the out-workings of the negotiations between the Stormont parties as part of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, concocted on February 5 this year.
Those negotiations led to the establishment, on February 8, of a joint working group on parades comprised of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, Michelle Gildernew and John O’Dowd together with the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson, Nelson McCausland and Stephen Moutray. Sinn Fein’s Sean Murray and former RUC Special Branch man Mervyn Gibson, both of whom were previously part of the Strategic Review of Parading Body led by ex-British army officer Paddy Ashdown, acted as advisors. Ashdown admitted in a 2009 autobiography that he had also worked as a spy for British intelligence.
Donaldson, McCausland, Gibson and Moutray are all members of the Orange Order, with the first three having held senior positions within that organisation.
A report drawn up by the Parades Working Group was handed over to the first and deputy first ministers of the Stormont administration on February 23 but, to date, neither the full report or its recommendations have been published. A number of nationalist residents’ leaders have publicly described the failure to publish that report as being “counter to any sense of openness, transparency and fairness regarding this process”.
In relation to the issue of sectarian marches, it is also obvious that the proposed legislation, with tier upon tier of bureaucratic procedures, mediation processes, meetings and reviews is designed to wear down the resistance and resolve of residents’ groups in their opposition to the sectarian invasions of their communities.
The various time-consuming and morale-sapping bureaucratic tiers and procedures that are being put in place through the Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests are clearly to designed to favour organisations like the Orange Order which have paid full-time officials and staff based at their headquarters in Belfast. In contrast, residents’ groups are comprised of local people who give their time freely and voluntarily outside of their other work and their community and family commitments.
Moreover, the requirements which the new Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests body will take into account when deciding on contentious parades no longer include the impact such parades will have upon the local community or the effect upon community relations.
Crucially, the draft legislation does not indicate if factors such as the purpose of the parade, the necessity of the route in serving that purpose, the demographic balance of residents in the immediate vicinity or the availability of alternative routes are to taken into account.
Little wonder then, that the DUP MLA and Orange Order member, Nelson McCausland, was able to state his belief last week that the concerns of the Orange Order had been met.
Last year, McCausland who is also the Six County minister for culture, arts and leisure, caused uproar when said he would not attend any event on a Sunday, unless it was an Orange Order parade that included a church service, but denied that his role as a minister might see him have to visit a Catholic church or other venues he might not ordinarily choose to attend.
“I have personal views regarding worship and I would not attend a service in a Roman Catholic church,” said McCausland. However, he clearly has no similar problem in parading through Catholic communities.
A long-term solution to the problem caused by sectarian parades can only be found in the implementation of a policy which includes a broad acceptance of the right of host communities not to have parades forced through against their will.
Without exception, there are alternative or other routes that these sectarian unionist marchers can take if they so desire.
Official tolerance over many decades of such sectarian parades has allowed the problem to persist. Further official tolerance will not make the problem disappear.