Proposed laws on parading in the North were redrawn in response to a public outcry over claims they undermined people’s right to assemble, it was announced today.
The Parades Bill was primarily aimed at changing how contentious loyal order processions were managed but also encompassed all public meetings in the region.
With organisers required to give 37 days notice of an event under the draft legislation, critics warned that the regulations would effectively ban impromptu rallies that had nothing to do with the traditional marching season.
Trade union activists who campaigned against the Bill cited the example of the anti-violence demonstrations staged by their movement across the North in the days after three dissident republican murders last year.
After reviewing responses to a public consultation on the proposals, Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness conceded that preventing such events was never the intention of the Bill.
“The consultation has now ended and after careful consideration of the many responses received from the organisations and members of the public, we are now proposing to make several key amendments to the draft Bill before it is introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly in September 2010,” said Mr Robinson.
“The primary change will be the removal of all public meetings from the remit of the legislation.
“The public consultation process indicated concern that open-air and other similar public meetings would be captured by the legislation.
“This was not the intention and this amendment will absolutely clarify this.”
The original Bill was the result of the deliberations of a six-man Sinn Féin/DUP working group that was established as part of February’s landmark Hillsborough Agreement that secured the powersharing institutions at Stormont.
The group’s task was to devise a new way to deal with the perennial disputes around the marching season and proposed the replacement of the existing Parades Commission adjudication panel with more a locally-focused decision making process.
While today’s announcement should assuage the controversy over the 37-day rule, the Bill’s passage to law is still not guaranteed as the Orange Order rejected it outright and refused to even participate in the consultation process.
Full details of the amendments are due to be announced later today – just 48 hours before a major security operation is mounted in north Belfast where members of the loyalist Apprentice Boys are due to parade close to the republican Ardoyne.
There was serious trouble in the area in the immediate aftermath of Orange Order marches last month when dissident republicans opposed to the peace process clashed with police. More protest demonstrations are planned for this Saturday.