By Marcus Hunt
On the 12th of July 2013, for the first time, the Ligoniel Combine of the Orange Order was prevented from completing its return march past the Ardoyne area. The decision was made by the controversial Parades Commission, a quasi-judicial body established in 1998. Since July the Ligoniel Combine has attempted to march along the disputed street on dozens of occasions, and continues to do so, but each time is prevented by a police line.
The reason the marchers were prevented was purely and simply that the Ardoyne is a Roman Catholic area, whilst the Orange Order is strictly a Protestant organisation, and an actively anti-Catholic one. Roman Catholic residents feel intimidated by what they view as sectarian and supremacist marches, and are rightly offended by tunes, such as ‘The Famine Song’, played by the marching bandsmen. Marches of the same type conducted through Protestant neighbourhoods have never been prevented.
The Orange Order argues that since all roads are ‘the Queen’s highway’, they have the right to march along all of them without distinction. As offensive as the Orangemen’s marches can surely be I agree with them that there are, legally speaking, no such things as ‘Protestant roads’ or ‘Catholic roads’, simply public roads along which anyone ought to be able to march regardless of their creed or their message.
In mainland Britain, since 1936 under the auspices of the Public Order Act, the Home Secretary has also had the authority to ban marches in public places. The original intent of the act was to deal with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and their intimidation of London’s Jews. In 2013 the same power was applied by Theresa May to five London boroughs for a 30-day period to prevent proposed EDL marches in Tower Hamlets. However the same powers were not brought to bear on seemingly similar marches through cities like Plymouth, Liverpool and Newcastle.
The distinction between the two sets of cases seems to be that an EDL march in Tower Hamlets would have been one in an area where Muslims form the plurality of the population; an EDL march in such a place would likely have inflamed community tensions and caused greater offence.
There is a difficult question about whether civil liberties, like the right to assembly and public protest, can be outweighed by concerns about inter-communal cohesion or simply offence. It is my opinion that they cannot. By all means the police should deal thoroughly with any acts of violence or vandalism that accompany such marches, as they are well able to do with CCTV and proper policing, but basic liberties must always be of prior importance to other social ends.
It seems that in Britain, as in Northern Ireland, the right to public protest is in danger of being restricted to areas where it is unlikely to damage community relations or cause offence: EDL marches in non-Muslim areas only. This seems to me a very undesirable step away from the idea that public spaces are genuinely public, that all of them belong to everyone without regard to creed or political persuasion. Proponents of such bans should also acknowledge that such a development is itself dangerous to the goal of inter-communal harmony. As in Northern Ireland, telling people where they can and cannot march would be a de jure recognition and reinforcement of de facto segregation.