This document aims to provide guidance for those who organise and take part in open-air public meetings such as ‘flag protests’, unrelated to public processions, in Northern Ireland.
In a democratic society everyone has the right to express his/her own ideas publicly in various ways, including public protests.
The right to assemble publicly is not unfettered though, and those who wish to exercise it must always take into consideration particularly the rights and freedoms of others and public order issues related to their activities.
We will first lay down (I) the principles which support the right to protest, and we will then indicate (II) the rules that should be applied in compliance with the principles before providing (III) practical guidance as to the way a protest should be organised and marshalled to the satisfaction of the police and the public at large.
I. The principles
There are 5 basic principles which ensure the protection and promotion of the fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These principles are the following:
1. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly only applies to peaceful protests (Article 11.1 ECHR;
2. The regulation process must not constitute an interference in the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful protest (Article 11.1 ECHR);
3. The duty of the State authorities is to protect the right to freedom of peaceful protest (Article 11 ECHR);
4. Any restriction imposed on a peaceful protest must be prescribed by law, have a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate in a democratic society (Article 11.2 ECHR);
5. Prohibition of the abuse of rights aimed at destroying the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (Article 17 ECHR);
II. The rules
Open-air public meetings, such as ‘flag protests’, are static meetings regulated by the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. The public authorities who have the power to impose conditions on them are the PSNI and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Any restrictions imposed on ‘flag protests’ must comply with the principles mentioned above.
The basic rules that apply to a ‘flag protest’ are as follows:
1. The organisers of the protest should ensure that it is kept peaceful at all times;
2. The organisers do not have to notify an open-air public meeting such as a ‘flag protest’, contrary to what is required for a protest related to public processions;
3. The PSNI should facilitate the holding of a peaceful ‘flag protest’ ensuring the safety of the protesters and of the public at large;
4. The PSNI has the right to impose conditions on an open-air public meeting such as a ‘flag protest’;
5. The Secretary of State has the power to prohibit the holding of an open-air public meeting;
6. A person who knowingly fails to comply with a condition imposed by the police or a prohibition imposed by the Secretary of State shall be guilty of an offence.
III. Practical Guidance:
Those who organise a ‘flag protest’ should:
1. Prepare the protest;
2. Before the start of the protest inform the protesters that proper language and behaviour is expected from them;
3. During the protest ensure that protesters do not interfere in any way with traffic and stay out of the road and do not prevent passers-by from using public footpaths;
4. At the end of the protest ensure that protesters disperse in good order;
5. After the protest assemble with the marshals in a quiet place to debrief;
Those who organise and take part in ‘flag protests’ in Northern Ireland should seek to abide by the law and properly marshal their events. This should be done in order to maintain their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, without having further constraints being imposed on it by way of new legislation. By doing so they will ensure that minimum restrictions are imposed on protests by the public authorities (PSNI and Secretary of State) in the future.