Since the beginning of the nineties, IRA/Sinn Fein strategy has been efficient in progressively eroding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly of those who wish to process peacefully. The standoff in Drumcree in 1995-96 triggered the North Report, published in 1997, which laid down the requirements for resolving opposition to public processions by way of ‘local accommodation’. The outcome was the legislation promulgated in 1998 establishing the Parades Commission.
Since then, discontent within the community has stemmed mainly from the procedures and guidelines used by the Parades Commission, which have resulted in decisions that appeared somewhat incoherent and/or difficult to understand. Flaws in the new legislation had to be addressed so as to promote the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Northern Ireland.
Regrettably, to this day no adequate remedy has been suggested in order to resolve the main issues of concern. Neither the Quigley Report (2002) nor the Strategic Review on Parading (2008) outlined convincing recommendations. It is now necessary that the assessment of future proposals be made against a benchmark of seven principles that can secure the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and maintain peace within a democratic society.
First principle: the right to freedom to public assembly only applies to peaceful assemblies. Therefore any form of violent public assembly is excluded in a democratic society and the authority in charge of making decisions must be given the means to identify and the power to prohibit such assemblies.
Second principle: evidence that is received by the authority empowered to make decisions and used as a basis for taking decisions must be made available to the public procession organiser without undue restrictions.
Third principle: engagement or discussions between those who wish to process and those who oppose the exercise of that right can never be made a pre-condition for the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Engagement can only be voluntary and limited to issues that relate only to restrictions that are defined in the European Convention. The Parades Commission generates difficulties when it takes into account whether engagement at local level has occurred while considering imposing restrictions on the exercise of the right to process. This has the adverse effect of giving objectors the right to veto peaceful public processions. As long as ‘local accommodation’ is presented as the only way forward it will be in breach of the principles that flow from the European Convention and for this reason it remains unacceptable.
Fourth principle: the grounds for restrictions to be imposed on a peaceful assembly can only be those that could be justified in relation to the limited prescriptions given in the European Convention on Human Rights. Harassment is not a valid ground for restricting the right to process since there is no right not to be offended. As long as a procession is and remains peaceful, those who are opposed to it cannot claim to be harassed.
Fifth principle: only restrictions that are necessary and proportionate in a democratic society should be imposed on peaceful public assemblies.
Sixth principle: it is the duty of the State authorities to ensure appropriate protection for peaceful public processions against violent protesters.
Seventh principle: the abuse of human rights by those who seek to destroy the right to freedom of peaceful assembly of others should be prohibited.
Legislation based on the sound aforementioned principles that uphold freedom and peace within society will provide what is required to the benefit of the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland. The removal of the Parades Commission is not an end in itself and one should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. If the proposals made by OFM/DFM appear to take Northern Ireland further down into the wrong direction there remains the option of amending the Parades Commission decision-making process so as to ensure it is Convention compliant.