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Why we must not sleepwalk into new parades legislation

As the posh-boy premier sharpens his knife while casting an eye on the public services that so many depend on, the Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill could turn out the unkindest cut of all.

The Bill, published in draft form during the election campaign, arises from the agreement made at Hillsborough on February 5 linking the devolution of policing and justice to the establishment of a new body for resolving disputes over parades.

The connection between the devolution of policing and the regulation of parades had been asserted by the DUP - and dismissed by almost everybody else as an attempt to delay the transfer of powers. There had been no reference to any linkage in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

The DUP's tangled line of dubious argument was that the Protestant community would not have confidence in any devolved policing arrangement unless a more reliable means of solving Garvaghy-type problems was in place.

That this was the point of the exercise seemed confirmed in the document issued at Hillsborough in which the First and deputy First Ministers undertook to appoint a six-strong working group to "bring forward agreed outcomes which they believe are capable of achieving cross community support".

The working group comprised MLAs Stephen Moutray, Nelson McCausland and Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) and Gerry Kelly, Michelle Gildernew and John O'Dowd (Sinn Fein).

They held their inaugural meeting on February 9. The draft - published on April 20 - is the fruit of their labours.

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There was no indication in February that the group had been tasked to do anything other than devise a system to replace the procedures of the Parades Commission; no suggestion that it would be engaged in drafting a new, wide-ranging public order act.

But this is what's set out in the draft Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill (Northern Ireland).

Its provisions appear aimed at least as much at curtailing protests against job losses and cuts in public services as resolving communal disagreements over marches.

The explanatory guide accompanying the draft defines the purpose of the proposed law as "to establish a legal framework that will allow for the introduction of new procedures governing public assemblies in Northern Ireland". Not contentious marches, but "public assemblies". Clause 5 defines "public assembly" as "covering any public procession, meeting or protest, apart from funerals and gatherings which the First and deputy First Ministers specifically order to be excluded".

"Public meeting" is defined as "a meeting of 50 or more persons held in a public place to which the public or a section of the public are invited to attend".

The example chosen in the guide to illustrate the working of the new measure is instructive: "If a group wanted to protest against the closure of a local sports facility this ... would fall under the definition of a public meeting and would therefore be subject to the notification procedures for a public assembly outlined in clause 13." Closure of a local sports facility ... a far cry from Orange parades and residents' protests.

Clause 13 tells that a campaign to save the sports facility - or library, or leisure centre, or residential home - would have to give 37 days' notice of any planned protest. So notification of a rally scheduled for November 1 next would have to be submitted by September 24. Knee-jerk action to save services will be outlawed. The scope of the proposed law goes beyond parades issues. It has implications for trades unions, community organisations and campaigns.

There has been no public explanation - much less discussion - of how the DUP/SF working group established at Hillsborough came to devise not a remodelled Parades Commission, but an elaborate bureaucratic machine for managing and curtailing the right of citizens to voice protest.

Had such a measure been mooted in the days before their accession to government, half the members of the working group (perhaps a different half on different occasions) would have been instantly on the streets with the protest placards.

Back then, of course, that sort of thing would have been legal.

Consultation on the new measure ends on July 14.