As they prepare to submit a formal joint response to the consultation on the draft Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill, two key nationalist residents’ groups - the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community in Belfast and the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition in Portadown – whose communities were at the very heart of the turmoil and conflict over contentious marches in the 1990’s jointly set out their views and concerns.
The Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill, released for public consultation on April 20, purports to offer a solution to the problems created by contentious parades in areas such as the Garvaghy Road and lower Ormeau Road.
Far from solving the issue caused by contentious parades in Portadown, south Belfast and elsewhere however, the Bill creates a whole new range of problems.
Now out for consultation, the draft legislation will bring any and all public gatherings of 50 people or more within the scope of the law - a recipe for potential disaster, and a far cry from the panacea it alleges to offer.
The solution to the vexing and long-standing problem of contentious parades lies not in complex legislation, but in a common sense approach of using viable alternative routes, taking the small number of disputed parades (less than 3% of the total) away from sensitive locations where they have a long history of causing disturbance.
Instead of specifically dealing with the minority of marches that are problematic, the new legislation proposes to treat all parades and outdoor gatherings as if they were the same.
The solution is to focus on the real problem - a small number of contentious loyal order parades that can be resolved by obliging the organisers to take an alternative route.
The re-routing of contentious parades is neither new nor radical. The European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights recognise that restrictions, including route restrictions, can be placed on parades to protect the rights of others, or to prevent disorder. Such restrictions have been upheld by the domestic courts.
Nationalist residents are not seeking to have parades banned. Rather, it is about guaranteeing the right to assembly in a proportionate and balanced way, taking into account the range of human rights violations which can occur when marches are forced upon certain communities.
When a loyal order parade, with a long history of causing sectarian trouble, seeks to pass through a nationalist area, there is a solution which reasonably respects the rights of both the marchers and the residents: the use of a viable alternative route.
If the primary purpose of the parade is to go from A to B, that purpose may equally be satisfied by a number of alternative routes.
We have seen a number of loyal parades over the years that have a shameful secondary purpose: to march through a nationalist or Catholic area for the sole purpose of sectarian triumphalism.
Any code such as the Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill code must, by its nature, be fully capable of taking account of the long years of sectarian conflict and abuse around marches and not air-brush such events from history by the introduction of some arbitrary dateline.
To ignore that history would make absolutely no sense, and be grossly unfair to those who have suffered years of sectarian abuse.
To make a decision on, say, the Drumcree parade without that historical context would be wrong, and cause irreparable damage to wider community relations.
The Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill is a flawed piece of legislation. It is the classic sledgehammer to crack a nut - a difficult nut, yes, but still a nut.
Those responsible for the bill should go back to the drawing-board to create a workable solution based on common sense and human rights.