Any public protest of more than 49 people will have to apply for permission at least 37 days in advance. Otherwise it will be illegal. While emergency protests are allowed, the Bill says it has to be an “extreme emergency” and permission must be applied for three days in advance.
This is from the Public Assemblies Bill that Sinn Fein and the DUP have brought to Stormont. They tell us this new legislation is just an update of laws already dealing with “contentious parades”. But that’s just not true; the existing law is only about marches or parades. The new Bill would give the police greater powers and would apply the same restriction to street rallies that don’t go anywhere.
However, that’s not all, anyone organising a march will have to say how many banners would be carried and what each would say. It doesn’t explain how the organisers are supposed to know who will turn up on the day and what their banners will say? Maybe you’ll be able to consult a free crystal ball at your local PSNI station.
Groups of workers have organised rallies at a few hours notice when something happens – like a sectarian murder or attack. There were demonstrations in support when the Visteon workers occupied their workplace. When the Gaza Aid ships were raided, protest rallies were organised for the following day.
Now, we don’t think Stormont is planning to ban all protest, nor do we expect the entire Bill to be always implemented if it is voted in. But it can be when the police or politicians want to. It’s not just about sectarian provocations or band parades, when framing the Bill they were also thinking of trade union and community protests.
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd, one of the group of six MLAs (three Sinn Fein and three DUP) that produced the Bill, has denied that it would prevent or delay protests against cuts we all know are coming in schools, health and other public services. However the ‘Explanatory Notes’ that were published with the Bill give the specific example of a neighbourhood wanting to protest against the closure of a sports facility having to give 37 days’ notice. O’Dowd should read over his homework before handing it up.
Newry Council of Trade Unions organised a protest against the Bill. Other protests have happened in Belfast and Derry. What we need now is a campaign, by those who will be affected, to stop the Bill. That means by our unions, community groups and campaigning organisations. And we should let MLAs know that their attack on the right to protest will be defied.