What does Freedom of Assembly mean in NI?

As part of the 2015 Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival programme, a panel discussion was held looking at Article 11 (Freedom of Peaceful Assembly) of the Human Rights Act & European Convention on Human Rights and its current and potential impact on dealing with parading in Northern Ireland.

You can listen to the entire discussion above by clicking on the play button.

The panel consisted of:

Chair: Stephen McCaffrey, Editor at The Detail

Neil Jarman, Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation & Social Justice, QUB

Brian Gormally: Director, Committee on the Administration of Justice

Rev. Mervyn Gibson, Assistant Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge

Chief Superintendent Tim Mears, Police Service of Northern Ireland

This event laid bare the many facets of the contentious issue of parading in Northern Ireland, as well as the important role that Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (and the Human Rights Act), Freedom of Assembly has played, and will continue to play in providing a platform for the resolution of competing rights in relation to parading.


There’s this view that unionists and the protestant community have a fear of human rights legislation and it’s seen as something the other side use. I think we need to dispel that internally in our community. After all, what we celebrate on the 12th July is the glorious revolution of civil and religious liberty for all, special privileges for none. And I would say human rights legislation is an extension of that so we should have nothing to fear from it.
— Rev. Mervyn Gibson, Assistant Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge

The Orange Order’s Mervyn Gibson called for a new system to be implemented in relation to disputes over Article 11 and competing human rights. He said the Order wanted something that placed dialogue at its heart, with arbitration as a last resort rather than a first resort. Voicing his dissatisfaction at the Parades Commission, he said unionists needed a system that they could buy into.

Whenever the police have to step up and make decisions about how we mediate, how we decide whether this persons Article 11 right is greater than the other persons right not to be interfered withor to be offended, then the situation has already degraded, and any decision we make will be ineffective and will not bring satisfaction to either group.
— Superintendent Tim Mears, PSNI

PSNI representative Superintendent Tim Mears has had a wealth of experience in dealing with the challenges associated with parading and the balancing of competing rights which has been characteristic of the dispute.  He cited the biggest challenge for policing around Article 11 is the partial perspectives brought by the different groups who feel their rights have been engaged or interfered with. He called for a more universal understanding of Article 11, tied in with Article 9 Freedom of Expression as a step towards a society that respects the rights of others.

Even if you replace the Parades Commission you’re still going to have to deal with the same issues and think about the same process because Article 11 does serve as the benchmark from which we have to think about the tensions and disputes over parades here.
— Neil Jarman, Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, QUB

Neil Jarman talked about the importance of using Article 11 whenever we have to deal with disputes regarding parades. He called it the ‘benchmark’ from which we have to think about disputes and tensions over parading here. In relation to calls for the dismantling of the Parades Commission, he said that any new body would still be grounded in the Convention.

Human Rights...have the potential to be effective and actually act as a way of solving this issue in a divided society.
— Brian Gormally, Director of CAJ

CAJ’s Brian Gormally argued that a human rights based approach was necessary to resolving disputes around parading. Outlining the human rights tests for conflicting rights, he argued that any discussion about parading could not be had without considering the value basis of human rights.

Comments from the panel provided much food for thought, giving insights into the different perspectives around parading and how Article 11 is engaged in order to provide resolution. It has been a window into how thing may develop in relation to the arbitration and facilitation of contentious parades and the balancing of competing rights.

Thumbnail Attribution: © Copyright Rossographer

Posted on August 23, 2016 .