Belfast Telegraph

Parade law review call as flag row exploits loophole

The Justice Minister has called for a review of parading legislation to close legal loopholes that have emerged during the flags protests.

Mr Ford spoke to the Belfast Telegraph shortly before Rev Mervyn Gibson, Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order, threatened that the loyal orders may not notify the Parades Commission of demonstrations this summer.

The clergyman argued that lodging parade plans with the commission only laid the organisers open to prosecution if difficulties arose.

Mr Ford outlined the legal loopholes that have been exposed by the Union flag parades protests and urged that the legislation be revised. One issue is that if the authorities cannot identify a parades organiser then they cannot hold anyone responsible. There is a legal wrangle over what is actually permissible.

“The Parades Commission and the police have been given conflicting legal advice,” Mr Ford said.

“It centres around the role of the Parades Commission in respect of undeclared parades. These occur when people haven’t submitted the necessary forms to the commission.”

Most flag protests have not asked for any permission or filed any forms. The now weekly march from east Belfast which halts traffic and is often followed by street fighting, is a case in point.

It is not notified to the commission, even though it is advertised on social media, rallying points are announced and the route is discussed with the police.

People such as Jamie Bryson, of the Ulster People’s Forum, are sometimes regarded as organising it but they generally insist that it is a “people’s protest” which is not under any group’s control.

Mr Ford said: “It appears obvious... that there is an organisation behind many of these marches, or else they wouldn’t happen, but identifying an organiser to hold accountable is another matter; that is one of the practical legal difficulties. This is one of the reasons why we now need to revise the parading legislation.”

Proposals by the DUP and Sinn Fein to replace the Parades Commission and reform the legislation have been on hold since 2010 after a fall-out with the loyal orders.

Mr Ford said police and Parades Commission legal adviser lawyers had “raised some crucial issues as to what legally constitutes a parade.

“The police also have great difficulties because one of their key duties is preserve the peace and protect order.

“That means they sometimes cannot act as many would wish them to act and stop the parade because that would lead to further disorder.”

He added that from his perspective “illegal parades should not happen. All parades should be notified and determinations of the commission should be respected.”

He warned that even if organisers could not be identified, and marches were allowed to proceed to prevent disorder, marchers could be prosecuted afterwards.

“I have seen the work the police do using CCTV evidence and it is impressive. I have also heard of people who have been arrested for marching asking for a significant number of other offences to be taken into consideration. So some people who feel they have won will actually find themselves in court in the near future.”

The police have only prosecuted two people for allegedly taking part in illegal parades this year.

Mr Ford warned that some protesters had got the law wrong.

 “People think that a white line picket is not obstructing the highway but legally it is. Some believe that blocking a pavement is not an offence but it is,” he said.

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