The bill covers all gatherings held on ‘any road or footway or any other place, apart from a building, to which the public or a section of the public has access.’ This would include the entrances to workplaces and public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. The only exceptions are funeral processions and ‘processions or meetings of a kind specified by order of the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly.’ It will also mean that organisers will also have to specify which groups will be taking part in protests.
Protests to be decided by unelected PSNI
Protests organised at short notice such as those organised by the Socialist Party and Lisburn Road residents in Belfast against racist attacks on Romanians will be deemed illegal if this legislation is passed. The PSNI Chief Commissioner could allow a protest in an “extreme emergency” but organisers would still have to give 72 hours notice. The PSNI made it clear to anti-racist activists in Belfast last year that they were opposed to residents organising against racist attacks on the Lisburn Rd. The DUP and Sinn Fein want to leave it in the hand of unelected police officers to grant permission to protest. Racist thugs are not going to give notice, so why should those organising against them?
The leadership of Sinn Fein recently participated in a protest in Belfast against the murder of humanitarian activists by the Israeli Defence Forces, posturing as being anti-imperialist. The protest was organised in less than 24 hours in quick response to the attacks on the flotilla in the Mediterranean. Under the Draft Public Assemblies Bill, this protest would have been illegal. If this bill had been in place, it would mean that all those present at the protest would face up to 6 months imprisonment and/or face a £5,000 fine!
Trade unions and campaigns against cuts targeted
This Bill shows that the politicians recognise that there will be resistance against their cuts to services and are prepared to use draconian legislation to take away peoples right to protest. Included in the Explanatory Guide is a reference to what type of protest action will be restricted. It states that ‘if a group wanted to protest against the closure of a local sports facility… the group’s activity would fall under the definition of a public meeting and would therefore be subject to the notification procedures for a public assembly.’
The Bill also specifically targets trade unions and campaigns. It specifically defines “Third Party Participants” as “Any group independent of the organiser but notified by them as taking part (such as bands, trade unions or campaign groups.)”. This represents a real attack on working class people’s democratic rights and must be determinedly opposed by the entire trade union movement.
Recently, there have been a series of attacks on workers’ right to strike through the courts. Bosses have used the High Court seeking injunctions against strike action by BA workers and railway workers.
Last year in Dublin, the High Court ordered hundreds of police to storm offices being peacefully occupied by Thomas Cook workers who were protesting in defence of their jobs.
Mass action can defeat Bill
There have also been examples of how workers action can successfully defy such laws. Industrial struggles such as the occupation of the Visteon workers in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield and the unofficial militant strike action by Lindsey Oil Refinery workers have also shown that repressive legislation is powerless when faced with mass action. Democratic rights were not voluntarily granted to working class people. Democratic rights, such as the right to protest, were won by working class people in the same way better living conditions were won – through mass struggle. The Stormont Executive – not content with stripping communities of facilities, closing accident and emergency units and planning to introduce water charges – wants to criminalise those communities that resist.
What type of campaign is needed?
It is very important an effective campaign, based on the trade unions, working class parties and organisations, is democratically organised to defeat this undemocratic Bill. Campaigners should use all tools at their disposal, including legal challenges, but a political campaign is necessary to defeat this bill. That means a campaign aimed at mobilising workers and young people and linking this Bill to the cuts and right-wing policies being carried out by all the Assembly parties. It should also be prepared to politically challenge groups, such as dissident republicans, whose methods provide opportunities for the Assembly and Westminster parties to introduce draconian “anti-terror” legislation. The politicians who sat on the working group on parades (Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, Michelle Gildernew and John O’Dowd and the DUP’s Stephen Moutray, Nelson McCausland and Jeffrey Donaldson) should be publicly exposed for introducing this draconian legislation and using the issue of parades to draft a bill which curtails all peoples’ right to protest. When confronted with opposition, Sinn Fein have attempted to use sectarian arguments to justify the Bill. They claim that the demand for this legislation originated from unspecified “nationalist resident groups” who are opposed to parades. Sinn Fein has no right to blame any resident group for the attack on democratic rights contained in the Bill. They have also failed to answer why a supposed “working group on parades” has proposed a Bill which attacks communities’ right to protest to defend “local sporting facilities” and trade unions and campaigns defending public services. The testimonies provided to the working group should be made public immediately.
The issue of contentious parades will not be resolved by draconian legislation, but will be resolved on a local level by face to face direct negotiations between democratically elected residents’ representatives and parades groups reaching agreement through compromise.
Should the politicians succeed in passing the Public Assemblies Bill, then it will be necessary to link young people, genuine community groups and campaigns and the trade union movement to defy this legislation. This Bill must be torn to shreds by mass protests, including protests against the savage cuts being planned by the Assembly parties.
The fact that these parties are prepared to introduce such repressive legislation, close hospitals, libraries and introduce water charges poses the need for a new party to represent the interests of working class people. Such a party would not only fight side by side with working class people on the issues of cuts and water charges but also fight against all repressive legislation including all anti-trade union laws.