Proposals for new legislation to deal with public assemblies in Northern Ireland have been shelved. The Parades Commission will have to be reappointed to regulate processions and related protest meetings. Such developments can only revive the hope to see a better future for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Northern Ireland by way of a proper reform.
On 13 September the Draft Bill on Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests should have been introduced by the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and by 20 September it should have gone through the second stage, but the agreed timetable has not been maintained. Since the proposed Bill had the potential to affect stakeholders, particularly the Orange Order, their consent for this legislation to go ahead was essential.
A Grand Lodge meeting took place on 6 July and on that occasion the Draft Bill for replacing the Parades Commission was rejected by a majority vote. It was decided at the time that the Order would meet again to consider other aspects of the overall proposals, mainly the new Code of Conduct which was closely related to the Draft Bill.
The second meeting took place on 25 September to consider the possibility of reversing the previous decision. Out of the 100 persons in attendance at the Grand Lodge meeting one made a proposal for approving the new legislation i.e. the Draft Bill and the Code of Conduct. Although three attempts were made, no-one volunteered to second it.
The members of the Orange Order appear to have realised that these proposals would result in further undermining the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Northern Ireland. In effect, the notification mechanism would have been made very complex; those organising and taking part in peaceful public processions would have had to engage in negotiation by way of dialogue (or through a mediator) with those opposing them in order to try to exercise their right; former convicted terrorists would have been given the right to become members of the adjudication body; also a burdensome monitoring and evaluation process would have been made compulsory for processions subjected to conditions.
It is undeniable that the Grand Lodge of Ireland has made a correct and courageous decision by preventing these proposals from being introduced as the new legislation. It means that the ruling made in July is now confirmed and should not be reconsidered in the near future by the Order. In the meantime the Parades Commission will be maintained for another year.
An attempt to worsen the current situation has been successfully averted and the opportunity is now given to make new, satisfactory proposals. A new regulatory mechanism would need to be aligned with fundamental principles that will ensure the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is protected and enhanced to the benefit of all law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland. A fair and considerate procedure will undoubtedly easily gain the full approval of the Orange Order.