By Liam McCann
On July 10th of this year Barbara Muldoon, an anti-racism campaigner will stand trial on the criminal charge of unlawful assembly and could face up to six months in jail. The incident upon which the Public Prosecution Service have pursued Barbara for three years now occurred in 2009 when the leader of the BNP Nick Griffin appeared on BBC programme Question Time.
Barbara participated in a protest against the decision to give air time to Griffin and along with 200 others assembled for a peaceful protest outside BBC Northern Ireland’s head office on Ormeau Avenue in Belfast.
A group of BNP supporters turned up to counter protest. Their faces were covered and they gave Nazi salutes and hurled racist abuse. The police refused to intervene to prevent this from occurring and instead arrested Barbara as the anti-racism protesters were making their way to Belfast City Hall in order to safely disperse. The police alleged that as soon as the protesters moved, they took part in an unlawful procession, despite having actually advised her that people should leave en masse and go to City Hall to disperse from there.
This case has implications for the protection of the right to protest and peaceful assembly in Northern Ireland. It is being pursued under the Public Processions (NI) Act 1998 which was introduced to deal with contentious parades in the NI context (i.e. communal parades that are either unionist or nationalist). Application of the legislation ‘on the spot’ to what was, in essence, a ‘static’ protest is a net widening of police powers to control protests in Northern Ireland. The ‘net widening’ resulting from the use of this legislation to regulate protests other than ‘communal parades’ impacts on people’s right to peaceful protest – be it in the context of current austerity measures, welfare reform, at the upcoming G8 summit or to highlight other issues of social importance in the future. The freedom to dissent and protest is not a liberty to be taken by nameless legal figures and imposed by the police – that path must be resisted.
A wide range of groups and individuals, including human rights advocates, trade union leaders, academics, campaigners and political parties among them the Socialist Party are calling on the Director of the Public Prosecution Service at this stage to withdraw the criminal charge against Barbara.
People can sign the on line petition in support of Barbara @ http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/drop-the-charges-against-barbara/