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The war on free expression
In the same year that the findings of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday were finally published, how ironic that the powers-that-be in the North should try to clamp down on the public’s right to protest.
Eamonn McCann, 29 Jul 2010
Most accounts of the Troubles begin at October 5 1968 – the day a civil rights march in Derry was battered off the streets. One of the march demands was the abolition of the Special Powers Act, which entitled the Stormont Government to ban any demonstration it didn't like the look of.
(Mary Hopkins' 'Those Were the Days' was No. 1 at the time. We thought they'd never end.)
Did Gerry Kelly, John O'Dowd or Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin recall October 5 as they sat with Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds and Stephen Moutray of the DUP piecing together the proposed Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill? The measure requires organisers of any public gathering of more than 50 people to give 37 working days notice to a new Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Body.
The instant demonstrations against the Israeli assault on Gaza would have been illegal. Likewise walk-outs and meetings against ward closures at Northern hospitals. Or solidarity rallies with Maura Harrington of Rossport following her imprisonment for objecting to the oil multinational's Government-approved theft of natural resources.
Under Clause 43, any police officer will be able "to arrest without a warrant any person suspected of committing an offence under this Act." Penalties include a fine of up to £5,000 or jail for up to six months or both.
Where did this misconceived measure come from?
At Hillsborough last February, the DUP refused to endorse the devolution of policing unless the Parades Commission was gotten rid of. So SF agreed to a six-person SF/DUP "working group" to devise a replacement. The group delivered draft legislation covering not only parades but public gatherings of all sorts. No explanation of this extension of their remit has been forthcoming. Perhaps it was just down to the authoritarian instincts of the DUP and SF surfacing after three years in government together.
The working group had two "expert advisers" – Sean "Spike" Murray, former commander of the Provos in Belfast, and Mervyn Gibson, ex-RUC Special Branch officer and chairman of the Loyalist Commission. Just the lads to decide what civil rights we are to be allowed.